Moles or Voles: What's Causing Your Garden Problem?

Is it a mole (left) or vole wreaking havoc in your garden?. By Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Have you tried to gently shake limp leaves from an unhealthy-looking shrub only to find yourself pulling the entire plant out of the ground?

If this scene brings back bad memories, you probably also remember looking at the plant in utter amazement and asking out loud, “What happened to the roots?”

There weren’t any, of course, Or, at least not many. That’s why you were able to so easily pull the plant from the ground.

It’s also a pretty clear sign you’ve got voles, says Alan Huot, a National Wildlife Control Operators Association-certified wildlife control professional in East Granby, Connecticut. Voles are herbivores that eat plants and their roots, Huot says. “I refer to voles as looking like a miniature muskrat."

“They’re very prolific and will girdle and chew shrubbery, damage ground covers and munch their way across lawns on the top of the ground throughout the winter underneath snow cover,” he says. “Voles are subnivean, meaning they live under the snow in areas of the country where there is a snow cover for long periods of the year.”

lawn damage made by voles
Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

When snow melts and reveals spider-like pathways (above), many homeowners believe the damage is from mole activity. However, it's actually voles, says Huot. Winter, in fact, is when voles do the most damage to shrubbery.

“Being plant eaters is what separates voles from moles,” Huot adds. “They are completely different animals. Moles are insectivores that eat earthworms, grubs, larva and ants. So the damage moles and voles cause is completely different."

Another way to see the presence of voles is if you have have multiple quarter-size holes in your lawn. This is where voles enter and exit tunnel systems created by moles. Voles travel in the same tunnels moles create, says Huot.

Interestingly, he said, they are also good climbers. While it would be unusual, that scratching sound you hear in your attic might not be the critter you would first suspect of invading your home — a squirrel. It could be a vole.

“There’s no reason for them to go into an attic,” says Huot. “There’s no food there.”

Then why would they do it? “Confused vole!” Huot exclaims. “But with wildlife, never say never!”

Should a vole get into your attic, Huot advises checking the structure for entry points, especially the corners if you have vinyl siding. Maybe there is a place where the ground cover is up against your structure and the vole just started climbing underneath the siding, for example.

One other subterranean creature homeowners should be aware of is a shrew. Shrews are much smaller than moles or voles — about mouse-sized. They are also carnivores.

You may become aware of the presence of shrews when trapping moles. “If you pull up a mole trap that has captured a mole and the back half of the moles is gone, you can bet you’ve got shrews, too,” Huot says.

This gruesome scenario represents an important point for homeowners trying to control wildlife pests.

“Know the animal you are targeting before selecting a control method," Huot says. "The more knowledge you have about an animal and its habits the easier it is to catch them.”