2020 05 23 volesBy David Hawke -- There have been reports coming in of “unauthorized construction” appearing in many yards this spring: heaps of soil and haphazard tunneling have shown up regularly since the snow cover melted away. All good evidence that moles have been ‘busy as beavers’ helping you maintain a beautiful lawn. However, their messy habit of leaving soil debris may not fit with your vision of a manicured grassland.

Also creating tunnels across your verdant green are voles, which have quite a few differences from moles, starting with that one letter in their name. So, who are these critters and why have they decided to rip your lawn to shreds?

In Ontario, there are three species of moles, but only two reside in Simcoe County: the hairy-tailed mole and the star-nosed mole (the eastern mole shows up only in the deep south of the province). These small mammals live the vast majority of their lives underground and are very well adapted to do so. They are tube-shaped to slide through tight tunnels, have very short legs, no external ears to plug up with dirt, eyes are present but quite weak, each has a very sensitive sense of smell, and their fur is short and dense so that backing up in a tunnel is not a hindrance. And I’d be remiss to forget to mention those over-sized paddle-shaped front feet! All in all, nature’s perfect tunneling machine.

If you have mounds of dirt in your yard then that is probably the hairy-tailed mole, as they like a sandy loam soil type: it can be shaped and not collapse yet is easy to dig through. Star-nosed moles prefer damp soils that border streams or wet areas.

The reason for these tunnels and pushed up dirt is that moles are carnivores (meat eaters), and earthworms and beetle larva sustain them all year round. If your sandy loam yard has a lot of white grubs then hairy-tailed moles have found a lovely place to live. As you may deduce from the post-melt dirt piles, moles are active all year, tunneling and eating just below the frost line. Exit holes are created under the snow and dirt is pushed out into waste piles.

Male moles occasionally tunnel into each other’s territory and terrible verbal altercations take place, just like you and that obnoxious neighbour on the other side of the fence. If a female mole is encountered, however, a nursery room is set up and the young (which are born hairless and helpless) are tended for three weeks.

Now to switch consonants and talk about voles. Voles are rodents and herbivores (plant eaters) and their tunnels run along the top of the soil and within the turf of the grass. Their over-wintering activities show up as well-worn pathways across your yard, often going to the base of shrubs.

Being a rodent, it likes to gnaw, and the tender bark of maples or planted shrubs is the main ingredient in their winter diet. As the snow melted away you may have seen the thumb-sized stems girdled of their bark (you may also have ‘seen red’ as those shrubs no doubt cost you a crazy amount of money and time to plant).

Voles are not mice and mice are not voles, but to a hawk, weasel, fox, coyote or cat, one tastes almost as good as the other. You, however, need to know there is a difference if control methods are to be applied.

Moles eat grubs, so talk to a lawn person about how to get rid of these beetle larva. And yes, mole traps are available but require a certain inner attitude to deal with removing the bodies from the clasping jaws.

Voles are most destructive in winter when the best supply of food is your shrubbery. In the fall, wrap the stems to prevent gnawing. In the summer, ensure you cut back on the cat kibble to give Fluffy a keen edge for wild meat (admittedly a debatable technique).

Other critters that utilize your lawn as a feeding area are mice, shrews, skunks, chipmunks and raccoons, each leaving characteristic holes or excavations in the yard. So, what’s a person to do?

At our place we have realized it’s a no-win for us to be constantly battling the local denizens, so we live with them: mole hills are raked down and we thank the moles for soil aeration and grub reduction; voles are thanked for killing all those young Manitoba maples that plague our property; skunks are thanked (from a distance) for grub removal services. Chipmunks are another story.

As you sit in your patio lounge chair with summer drink in hand, you can relax and forget your worries about lawn diggers… besides, you will have enough on your mind as you become distracted with blackflies, mosquitos, deer flies and yellow jackets. And ticks… OMG, ticks! See? Not thinking about moles anymore, are you?

Dave’s Notebook: From 6pm Friday, May 29, to 6pm Saturday, May 30, the members of Team Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will be counting all the birds and animals we can find within five kilometres of our houses. This is for the Carden Challenge, an annual fundraiser for the Couchiching Conservancy – taking place this year but with some changes due to the pandemic. Please support us – it’s a great cause. Details are at: https://www.lakesimcoeliving.com/blog/blog/support-dave-in-the-2020-carden-challenge.html

© 2020 David J. Hawke

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Photo: A hairy-tailed mole. By David Hawke