Mole
"Hi, I'm Mrs. Molesworth!" Actually, this is Mrs. Molesworth the Third, & this photo is a bit sad, since she was left on our back stoop as a gift from a cat, & I posed it in the garden to look alive. There is considerable regional color variation in the Pacific Mole. Here on the west side of Puget Sound they are silky black, & they're probably the Olympic penninsula subspecies. We currently have two Pacific moles in residence at far opposite ends of the property separated by the house (they are too territorial to live in the same gardens). Mrs. Molesworth the Second still lives in the northwest yard, excavating under the chokecherry, Loder's white rhododendron, & underneath the sidewalk to reach a roadside sun-garden. The new mole moved in after the cat got Mrs. Molesworth III, taking over the tunnels on the east side of the house, rarely making herself noticeable, though if I look hard enough I'll find her few entrances, an example of which is shown in the second photograph, below right.

Our Friend the Mole


"If you have them, you need them."

-Sharon Lovejoy,
Country Living Gardener, Feb 2002



"The ground swells greenest o'er the laboring moles."

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
(1806-1861)

   

For some while Mrs. Molesworth the First — a little Coast Mole (Scapanus orarus) — lived in our garden. She had two main tunnel exits & when wasps moved into one of those, she sealed it off & moved her secondary exit on the opposite side of the flagstones. The soil she pushed up out of her tunnels formed only a few small & unobtrusive molehills. I was always on the look-out for her handiwork & enjoyed spotting signs of her presence. When a cat finally got her, I was quite saddened to find her bloody headless corpse which the cat had only partially eaten. A few weeks later, Mrs. Molesworth the Second moved in. The first signs of her were a couple of small molehills under the choke-cherry & tunneling visible if one lifted up a steppingstone. The second Mrs. Molesworth remained even less noticeable than her predecessor, & it is hard to imagine why some gardeners lose their cookies over moles.

Some people seem to regard the mole as the bane of gardening. But in the majority of cases the "live with them" rule will be far less frustrating than fighting them. Moles are highly territorial & you do not end up with increasing numbers of them as they breed. Generally you only have one mole living in a given territory. A male permits no other moles in his territory, they will fight to the death if another tries to move in. Even "concentrated infestations" rarely amount to more than two moles per acre of farmland; in suburban landscapes they are far fewer than that.

LantanaA female will permit a male to invade her area when she's ready to mate, but he'd better get out afterward, & when her babies are a few weeks old, she crabs at them & they flee the area never to return. So at most you have a mother with a couple of transient offspring who won't stick around for long. In some cases, however, a single mature mole can create a very elaborate network of tunnels, pushing up unwanted soil at intervals, so it can look like many moles are excavating even though it's only one. And if you do trap or kill that one, another will promptly move into the tunnels, as a well-tunnelled area will not stay long vacant & you could end up trapping new tenants serially pretty much forever.

The Coast Mole can be an aggressive tunneler, but isn't invariably so, & its hills are not usually large or intrusive. The Townsend Mole (S. townsendii) on the other hand is a really big critter, almost jet-black & soft as a chinchilla, invariably a devil of a mound-builder. A single Townsend may pile up twenty or thirty hills, then a block away in another yard altogether could have another ten. It does mean you can encounter a cluster of mole-hills & get the impression it's a whole family of the little bastards, but it's one mole, & likely the same mole with a multi-property range.

Since our Mrs. Molesworth was a Coast Mole, she was only half the size of a Townsend's, & her hills were few & small — meaning my easy tolerance of her wasn't difficult. Had she been a Townsend's, who knows, I might be singing a different tune. As it stands, however, seems to me if one finds these hills unsightly, it's simple to move the soil where it's needed or flatten it out.

Two other types of moles are native of the Northwest, besides subspecies. Drier areas of the Northwest, mainly central Oregon, have the small brown or grey Broad-footed mole, S. latimanus. A footnote to the three noted tunnelers — Townsends, Coast, & Broad-footed — would be the tiny shrew-mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii) which is not a tunneler but prefers to burrow through piles of leaf matter doing brave battle with beetles, worms, centipedes & millipedes.

People who want their lawns to look like golf courses won't be able to adapt to living with any wildlife, & especially not with a hill-making mole. But then people like that will eventually replace even their lawn with gravel or concrete spray-painted green, so greatly do they hate the living world.

For the even slightly natural-inclined gardener, the fact that moles eradicate sundry sorts of turf-nesting moth larvae, beetles & mealworms which would otherwise destroy the roots of everything, makes a single resident mole a welcome tenant. And really only the Townsend's mole, of the seven varieties throughout the USA, is such an aggressive hill-maker as to demand much actual accommodation. If you have a smaller variety, it will not make itself nearly so conspicuous with an excess of hill-manufacture. The lighter-colored Eastern Mole (S. aquaticus) gets by with far fewer exits than its western cousins. And if you're lucky enough to have a tiny shrew-mole, that means you have one hell of a healthy & natural garden, & you may never even notice it's there unless you spend lots of time in your yard at night when they will sometimes come into the open to forage.

Moles do considerable good churning soil & helping to work loam deeper into the ground. Though they will eat just about anything they are mainly carnivorous. They eat slugs, beetles, moth larvae, snails, earwigs & sowbugs, earthworms, millipedes & centipedes, — contributing greatly to a garden's healthy balance.They also create "storage bins" of beheaded worms & other emergency food resources packed away underground with leaves. These hoards contribute to deeper-soil compostings.

They do eat a bit of vegetation & are known to horde seeds, but they do not nibble healthy roots. Moles do not eat flower bulbs or flowers. They do sometimes disrupt ornamental plants with their excavations but this is rare & often the result of grub & mealworm infestations that the moles are cleaning out to the flowers' benefit. They tend to extend their tunnels only in the winter when they need a larger range to find food. When food is plentiful in spring, they just patrol the tunnels without extending them, gathering up whatever worms, moth larvae, centipedes & beetles find their way into the tunnels. Really even their mounds can be decorative plusses for a yard that is of the woodland type like ours; gardeners should not be so focused on such sterile appearances & insane tidiness as to end up despising every evidence of nature's presence as an intrusion.

Among plant matter moles are fondest of fungus, & can clean up an infected root saving a tree's life without the gardener ever having known some bush or tree was in trouble. But being primarily insectivorous, because related to shrews rather than mice or rats, they're vastly more focused on catching snails & insects. Very occasionally moles have been known to eat bulbs, but this usually requires unusual circumstances, or a quirky mole. One study of the stomach contents of hundreds of moles captured in British Columbia discovered exactly one mole who specialized in a vegetarian diet, a unique individual. The west coast moles generally eat worms foremost & grubs & other insects for variety. The eastern mole eats primarily grubs, with worms & various insects for variety. The percentage of grass roots they ingest is largely incidental to worm & grub intake.

If one really can't deal with a single mole having your garden within their territory, there are chemical repellents that occasionally do work without having to kill the animal. However, allegedly repellent plants, chewing gum, windmills, whistling bottles, mothballs, filling their tunnels with water from the hose, & other reputed remedies don't work. The ultrasonic & subsonic pest electronic repellents have been thoroughly tested in university experimental gardens & proven to have no effect on moles whatsoever, despite the continuing false claims. Even poison gas forced underground is something they readily escape by plugging their own tunnels at intervals. Of all the many methods only two have proven broadly effective in controlled studies: poisoning, & scissor or spear trapping. And they're damnably clever at evading even the plausible options.

The only certainway to get rid of them, alas, is with a scissor-jaw or spear trap actually placed inside their tunnel. That's the first method used by professional mole trappers. Here in Washington state Initiative 713 banned use of the scissors trap, under maximum penalty of a year in jail & $5,000 fine. Professional mole-trappers who obey the law have had to stop guaranteeing their work since live-capture & poisons are much more hit-&-miss than an expertly placed scissors trap. Amateurs aren't as lucky even with the traps, because placement has to be done without the mole realizing an invader has been messing with their tunnel; they're very smart about their tunnels.

In Oregon the scissors trap is always the first choice of professional mole-trappers; even in Washington state they frequently go ahead & use the scissors trap illegally, since no one has ever been prosecuted for it & the law is sort of just sitting there without purpose or enforcement. Arizona, California, Colorado & Massachusetts also have anti-scissors trap laws, & also do not enforce them. These bans weren't made for the sake of moles, which are not protected animals, but because gripping & slicing traps are fantastically cruel when they accidentally get the legs of larger animals, either pet or wild.

In all cases you should foremost deeply consider whether you can regard a mole as a sort of invisible pet, whose comings & goings are less obnoxious than a pooping dog & far more beneficial. Moles should be listed among garden allies rather than foes, since they help negate any requirement for pesticides, clean out harmful root fungus, aerate & churn & fertilize soil layers, & undertake numerous other helpful acts.

You'll also find in
the Weird Wild Realm of Paghat the Ratgirl
an article entitled:
Moles as Pets

   



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