If you’ve gardened any length of time you’ve probably encountered one or all of these garden pests. Voles, moles, mice or shrews – they’re not pleasant to deal with but you CAN do it. I’ve been waging war successfully with them for 35 years. So I feel pretty qualified to give you the best battle strategies.
Did you notice that I said “waging war successfully for 33 years” ? One of your best defenses right up front will be to know and accept the realities that exist.
The main reality — and the hardest one for many to accept — is that doing any one thing – no matter what it is — will not rid you of the problem forever. What you want to accomplish – and can accomplish — is control and balance.
Once the problem is under control and no damage is being done you still have to be aware, watch and then take action again if you see any telltale signs.
The attitude resulting from knowing what the reality is, accepting it and being committed to taking action when necessary, will greatly relief the frustration that can be generated from situations with these pests.
If you are a regular reader of TMG you know already that my control recommendation does not include poisons. In this age of chemicals and short term gratification there are many (probably the majority) who will tell you that poisoning is the only solution. And they will say “—- especially for a major infestation.”
I know from experience that is untrue. You need not waiver in your commitment to refrain from using poisons. Poisons are dangerous from beginning to end. The poison you use to poison the pest could end up poisoning other animals as well. Could also end up in your garden and contaminating your food.
The Most Effective Means of Controlling These Pests
Trapping to kill (not trap and release) is the most effective means of control for any of these garden pests and with persistence you can win against even major infestations. I know because in the past I’ve had to do it.
In searching the internet you will come across all kinds of methods used against these pests. You won’t often see the trapping method. But it’s the only one that will guarantee your success.
Not Pleasant – But You CAN Do It
Never handle any of these creatures. They carry some nasty bacteria. Use gloves. Take the trap(s) with the dead varmint out of the garden. Dig a hole with your trowel or digger. Loosen the trap with your tool. Put the carcass in the hole. Put the dirt on top. Firm the ground with your foot.
Dealing with this type of problem is never pleasant — but dig deep inside yourself —- you’re made of tougher stuff than you think. And you can do this. Once the problem is controlled you’ll only have to set the occasional few traps. By then – piece of cake! (Well - maybe not quite — but you get the idea.)
Gardeners encountering one or all of these creatures for the first time, usually refer to all of them as moles. You may not know the difference either — but you need to — because your battle strategy will vary with each.
Most people – myself included — feel that voles are by far the worse of these creatures and responsible for most of the damage that new gardeners might attribute to moles or mice.
- Identification - They’re mouse like. Their faces are not quite as pointed. Sometimes grey, sometimes light brown or dark brown. For pictures do a Google search for “pictures of garden voles”.
- What They Eat – They are omnivores, and will eat anything. But they tend to like plants much better. They have favorite things that they can’t resist like all your tulip bulbs, asiatic lilies and hostas.
- Damage They Do - whatever they take a liking to they can wipe out quickly. Onions, lettuce, radishes, beets, squash, tomatoes, cukes — anything. They love potatoes and every year I end up with some loss to voles. Their tunnels and their chewing on roots can undermine any garden plants – even the largest.
Real life example: One of the first onion beds I ever had was beautiful. I started to pull an onion one day —- and you can imagine my surprise when it was literally pulled out of my hand. The stalk was pulled down the hole where the onion had been. Until that day, I thought that only happened in Bugs Bunny cartoons.
- Other Habits of Voles – They are active both day and night but spend about 80% of their life underground. They can breed all year — but March through September is the time most of it takes place. Average litter is 4 to 6 and gestation is only 21 days! Any females birthed are ready to mate within 28 days!
- Some years won’t be as bad as others. Fortunately their population has lows and peaks in a cycle of about 3 to 5 years.
- The most effective method of control is trapping.
How to Trap Voles
Use regular mouse traps. Use peanut butter or apple for bait. (You can also use peanut butter rolled with oats.) If you use apple, you’ll have to tie it on. Otherwise, you’ll probably lose the bait and vole.
- When you see holes (tunnel exits) that indicate their presence, place the trap at the hole.
- Depending on the positioning of the hole you might have to pull away some soil to make a flat surface for the trap. Remove as much earth as you have to in order to set the trap properly.
- Turn a large plastic flower pot or bucket upside down and place it over the trap and hole so they’re in the dark. (Voles are said to only take the bait in the dark.)
- Then place a brick or rock on top of the pot or bucket to keep it from being knocked over by the wind or whatever.
- Many times you can catch one, two or several very quickly (within a few hours) depending on how many voles are living in that particular tunnel. Other times you might get one a day. Sometimes, you have to leave the trap for a few days. (Remember they use lots of holes.) If you don’t get anything after 3 days — stir up the soil so the tunnels collapse. If the area is active, they will resurface at another spot so you can set the trap again.
In the growing season especially, exit holes can be concealed by a plant or mulch. Just take time to look. You’ll find them.
In the winter they’re easier to find — and will more than likely show up in your cold frames or under your hoop tunnels —- usually right beside your best lettuce plant.
For maintenance trapping I usually set 3 traps. If I notice a lot of damage I sometimes set as many as 6 traps. If you have a major infestation, you can set 12 or 24 traps.
But REMEMBER: watching and resetting 3 traps consistently is better than setting 24 and then not being consistent with the duties involved.
- Identification – Moles have large webbed feet for tunneling. For pictures – do Google search for “pictures of garden mole”.
- What They Eat – They are carnivores and eat grubs and earthworms and some other insects, NOT plants. They need ground that is heavily populated with insect food like grubs since they need a lot to sustain them.
- How They Can Effect Plants – Their tunneling activity can disrupt plants in your garden and borders and separate the plant roots from the soil. Without root to soil contact, the plant can die.
- Damage They Do – When they tunnel through the earth close to the surface the soil directly above them mounds up. Sometimes the long veins of mounded dirt are very noticeable. At other times, you don’t notice them until stepping on them and sinking in a bit.
Occasionally there is hole where the mole surfaces. (Voles can use these tunnels too.)
You might even see an area anywhere from 3 x 3 feet up to 6 x 6 feet that is mounded with dirt and sinks when you walk on it. I use to think this was where all the mole tunnels met. I read recently that someone considered it a feeding area. Whatever the case — it makes an ugly site in your lawn.
- The most effective method of mole control is trapping. Amazon sells mole traps for a little more than $10. Place the traps in one of the long veins described above. It will come with instructions.
We used a trap like this several years ago when damage became extensive. One of the moles we caught was as big as a small squirrel! Guess we caught the great-granddaddy of them all. Haven’t had much noticeable damage since then until the past few months. The trap has been set several times but they keep springing it. Can take some patience to catch them.
Be careful with these traps. We don’t even like to use them for fear that we’ll step on one. The trap is inserted partially into the tunnel. The top stays above ground, but can visually blend into the area. You could easily miss seeing it if you’re not thinking about it. I’d hate to think of what it would do to my foot!
Sometime back a TMG reader wrote and said
- “Last summer I had a terrible problem with mice eating my plants in my garden. I would not have believed it, if I had not seen it myself. I came out to my garden about mid day and found a mouse gnawing on my pepper plants. “
In 35 years I have only caught one mouse in my garden, but as you can see from this readers experience — it can happen. Thus, I have included them here.
- Identification – Probably most everyone knows what a mouse looks like. If not, Google “pictures of mice”.
- What They Eat – They’re omnivorous, meaning: they will eat just about anything.
- What They Do – As they go about eating what’s yours, they can spread disease by contaminating food and water with their urine and droppings. Also disease can be spread by the parasites mice carry which bite the mouse and then bite a human or pet.
- Two Can Become Many in a Hurry - They can have an average litter of 6 to 8 young. One female can have up to 10 liters per year and they can breed when they are as young as five weeks old! If you let them breed you could be overrun with mice in a short period of time.
- The most effective method of control is trapping.
But — you need to employ other common sense practices in addition to trapping to make sure they don’t return in numbers. Some are:
- Keep pet areas clean.
- Dog food and cat food that is left out all the time invites mice and RATS.
- Do not use any animal products in your compost pile. This too will invite mice and RATS.
- Make sure grain or seed is stored in containers that can not be chewed into by mice.
To further elaborate on trapping here is part of my reply to the young woman who asked what to do about the mice in her garden.
“— I would buy 2 dozen mouse traps. Bait them with either peanut butter or apple. In this case try using peanut butter first, since it will make it so much easier to bait the traps. (You have to use string to tie a piece of apple on —–and that gets to be a job especially if you have a lot of traps.)
Check the traps at least 2 or 3 times a day if you can. More if possible. (Especially morning and dusk.)
Keep at it, because diligence will be your best strength in this situation. It might not be just what you want to be doing, but it will get the numbers down. And save your vegetables for you rather than mice, voles or whatever.
After that —- keep an eye out for any tell tale signs and take action again the minute anything indicates a possible problem.”
- Identification – Mouse-like but with an even more pointed face. For pictures Google: “short tailed shrew”.
- What They Eat – Worms and insects.
- What They Do – They can undermine your plantings and be a nuisance.
- Control – I usually catch shrews when I’ve set traps for voles. Even though my traps are set with peanut butter or apple — not probably to the liking of a creature that eats insects – they stumble into the trap. I’m always surprised when it was a shrew doing the damage rather than a vole. I reset the trap and can end up having several more stumble into it.
I trap voles and shrews mainly in the winter time when it’s easier to see their openings. By getting the numbers down now — I won’t have to bother as much in harvest season.
Trapping will guarantee your success in winning the war against these varmints.
Organic gardening is easy, effective, efficient —- and it’s a lot healthier.
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