Pesky moles and voles have eluded innocent gardeners for decades. Here we are, just trying to beautify our little place on earth and - wham! - suddenly the lawn looks like a dirt bike track. Reminds me of "Caddyshack" and Bill Murray's unfruitful quest to kill the wily gophers. Just as in the movie, a battle with the creatures can be enough to drive a person to hair pulling and explosives.
But let's hope it doesn't come to that.
Lawrence is home to both moles and voles. I hadn't even heard of the vole until a few years ago, which is odd because they're more likely to be seen by gardeners. So what's the difference between the rodents? A mole spends almost his entire life underground looking for and eating earthworms, insects and grubs. Voles, primarily vegetarian, live and burrow underground but forage for food above ground.
Moles damage a lawn visually with soil piles and runs, which can be very evident when a heavy rain causes erosion by washing out their tunnels. Moles are often blamed for eating plant roots, but they actually only feed on worms and insects. (However they can kill plants by creating underground air pockets that dry out their roots). It's voles that chow on plants, roots and bulbs - many times killing the plant outright. Most of the lethal damage occurs during winter, when plants are dormant and thus unable to regrow and repair their roots. Vole damage becomes apparent with networks of runs in the yard and flower beds - and the damage to flora.
Todd Olson, owner of Critter Control of Kaw Valley, says the two creatures can even co-exist.
"We have treated yards with both moles and voles," Olson says. "Voles will sometimes use mole burrows to gain access to the root system of a shrub or plant. Mole damage is typically a raised burrow in the mulch or turf. During the winter months, moles push soil up from the frozen turf to create mounds in yards.
"Vole damage is more subtle in most cases. Voles create runs along the surface of the ground that lead to and from their burrows and food sources."
The damage can be most evident in winter's barren landscape, but don't let that fool you: Moles and voles don't hibernate and are busy year-round.
Voles, also called meadow mice or field mice, are often mistaken for mice. But the easiest way to distinguish a vole from a mouse is that voles have short "hamster-like" tails, stocky bodies and short legs. They're brown or gray, have small eyes, and ears that are partially hidden. On occasion, voles will push soil out of retaining walls, giving homeowners a sign of their presence.
They also can wreak havoc on bulb crops.
"We had one client who was an avid gardener, and he called after 150 bulbs he'd planted never emerged," Olson says. "After inspecting the yard, we found that voles had eaten all of his bulbs over the winter."
It's also during the winter that voles will girdle shrubs and trees, eating the bark from the base of the plants and potentially killing them. Vole girdling can be differentiated from girdling by other animals by the nonuniform gnaw marks, occurring at various angles and in irregular patches.
Voles breed in the spring and summer, and - perhaps surprisingly - possess a talent for swimming. They often can often escape the sharp claws of a cat or the talons of a bird by jumping into a body of water.
Moles are loners. They live alone, eat alone and spend a lifetime in relative seclusion. So if you see mole damage in your lawn, you can feel relatively sure that he's the one and only critter burrowing to China in your garden.
Moles have hairless, pointed snouts that are about half an inch long, and their ears and eyes tend to be hidden. Their forefeet are very large and broad, with palms wider than they are long, and webbed toes built for digging.
Moles enjoy hunting for worms and grubs, particularly in moist, cool, shaded areas - which is why suburban lawns are so popular with the critters. Moles actually use a swimming motion to move through the soil. They eat 70 percent to 100 percent of their weight each day, and the energy they expel while digging aids in their voracious appetites.
A mole will use clods of dirt to make volcano-shaped hills as exit points from their massive tunnel systems; surface tunnels or ridges are indicative of an active mole.
Getting rid of moles and voles is not easy. They don't take well to poisons or fumigating, and traps can be hit or miss but are worth a try. If all else fails, a professional exterminator can help with the problem.
"Prevention for both species is difficult," Olson says. "Moles can travel 30 to 50 feet per hour making new tunnels. I have confirmed this with live mole tests in my yard. Fortunately, moles are not social animals; they do not tolerate other moles in their territory.
"Voles are a typical rodent, colonial in nature, so there tend to be groups living in yards. In Kansas, we have prairie voles, and they are very good at surviving in our climate of extremes."
Actually, the mole is not such a terrible nemesis. Its tunnels and soil-shifting actually can help aerate the lawn, carrying humus farther down into the earth. Moles also eat harmful lawn pests like the white grub, which can cause extensive damage.
Voles : well, I don't like the idea of anything eating all my tubers or girdling baby trees and ornamental shrubs. If voles were camping out in my yard, I'd call in the experts.