Any homeowner with a yard runs the risk of having their lawn terrorized by burrowing animals. Gophers and moles are animals that can cause extensive damage to a yard by digging complex networks of tunnels below ground. While these pests are most likely to be active in the spring and summer when the soil is most malleable, they remain active in the winter by burrowing even further into the ground to escape the colder temperatures. Voles can also cause lawn damage with their runways. Though it may be hard to tell these pests apart, knowing what each animal looks like and how they cause damage can help you practice the best gopher, mole and vole control methods and protect your home’s yard.
The Difference Between Gophers, Moles, and Voles
While all three pests are known for digging or using an existing hole to store food, raise their young, and stay protected from extreme weather, a number of identifying factors can help determine which pest is causing the damage in question.
With over 25 species of gophers existing in North America, where you liv e determines which species you’ll encounter. In general, gophers can grow between 4 and 14 inches long and use their long incisor teeth and sharp claws to dig a series of deep tunnels that reach tree roots and other plant roots. Aside from their short tails, these pests appear in varying shades of brown and most closely resemble squirrels or groundhogs. When creating new tunnels, these pests will leave behind large mounds of dirt and soil that measure over a foot in diameter. A sign that you need to implement gopher control is if you see fresh mounds of soil appearing throughout your yard.
Moles are significantly smaller animals and grow to be just 4-6 inches long, or half the length of a gopher. The most telling feature of a mole is its front paws. These appendages are over-sized, paddle-like paws that help moles dig through dirt and push soil up to the surface. Moles tend to be grayer in color than gophers, though the difference between gophers and moles comes down to more than just their appearance. When digging their tunnels, moles only leave behind small, cone-shaped mounds that measure approximately two inches wide. These nocturnal mammals spend much of the night building their tunnels close to the ground’s surface, which can result in a series of raised ridges appearing across the length of your lawn by morning.
Voles are one of the lesser-known turf pests, but these rodents can do a lot of damage to a backyard. These pests grow between 5-8 inches long and may have either black, brown, or gray fur depending on the species. Voles are frequently mistaken for house mice and young rats, but unlike these small rodents, voles rarely invade homes. Voles build a series o f runways and primarily construct shallow runways, while moles dig deeper tunnels below ground. They may use existing holes made by moles and other animals to store food, raise their young or hide from predators.
A gopher’s burrow system can span over 2,000 feet and destroy a yard’s landscaping. If you see large mounds of fresh soil popping up around your yard, it’s likely a sign that gopher control is needed. While some homeowners choose to incorporate pesticides as baits for gophers and moles, the National Pesticide Information Center warns that this method of gopher control can put non-target organisms, like dogs, cats, and other animals, at risk of ingesting the toxic chemicals.
Another form of gopher control is gopher traps. Both live traps and snap traps can be used to capture gophers, but because of the nature of these traps, homeowners with pets and small children should exercise caution and follow manufacturer's instructions when placing gopher traps around their yard. Likewise, each state has their own rules and regulations regarding trapping and removing wild animals from residential properties. While it’s fully legal in some states, other states have stricter guidelines, so any homeowner interested in trapping gophers should check their local ordinances to learn more about wildlife removal.
Moles are carnivores, and by eating earthworms, grubs, and other harmful insects, they can eliminate annoying pests that prey on your plants. However, the damage these animals cause can be extensive. Just like with gophers, one of the best ways to control moles in your yard is by using traps. However, these traps should also be placed following the manufacturer's instructions and state laws.
Another way to help get rid of moles is by repelling the pests. While it may not be as effective as setting traps, using castor oil on your lawn can help encourage both moles and gophers to leave. Educators from the University of Nebraska state, “Homeowners can prepare their own repellent concentrate by mixing 6 ounces of 100 percent unrefined castor oil with 2 tablespoons of liquid detergent in 1 gallon of water,” though they note that this method is limited in its effectiveness.
Since voles love to build their nests among tall and dense vegetation, maintaining a tidy lawn can help you prevent a vole infestation in your yard. If you’re already seeing signs of these rodents, however, the best course of action is to use traps for voles. Because voles often travel above ground, their movements create worn paths over grass and within flower beds. Place the vole traps along these well-worn paths, while following the manufacturer's instructions, to help catch traveling voles.
Ultimately, the main difference between moles, voles, and gophers is the damage these pests cause. While voles leave behind a series of runways across a lawn’s surface, both moles and gophers dig tunnels that result in dirt mounds popping up across a lawn, though mounds made by gophers tend to be much larger than those made by moles.