Living with Moleman

eastern mole

He’s a wrecking machine! Powered by worms! Look! Down in the dirt! It’s Moleman! photo by Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

[Update 10/29/2016: Moleman is still here and now I’m used to him. I’ve caught him twice (see my recent post  “Moleman in Prison” for an account of catch and release mole fishing). I use Moleman’s mounds as a place to place yellow sweet clover and also as an indication of soil quality. Overall the place is improving and that is a shared enterprise between us.]

I’ve written quite a lot here about fences and garden pests, and for the last few years I’ve not had to deal with much of that— except for Moleman, the ordinary little eastern mole who moved into the back yard about two years ago. This year, times being hard for both moles and men, Moleman scouted for new hunting grounds and discovered a wonderful new country (the main garden) on the other side of the Big Square Thing (the house).

I have mixed feelings about this. As pests go, moles aren’t the worst problem to have, unless you want a nice, level, neatly mowed yard. Moles aren’t compatible with that. If you have moles, you have mounds of soil in your yard excavated from the deep subsoil layers. Moles build stuff. I like them because of that, they do a lot of manual labor and I respect manual labor. In theory, moles ought to be good for a piece of property with heavy clay and poor drainage. The maze of tunnels moles create in search of worms and grubs, and the deep networks of burrows and dens moles build, just because moles do that, obviously turn the soil, admit water, and aerate roots. Has to be a good thing, even though it isn’t aesthetically acceptable in most home landscapes. In mine, it’s ok. I scythe rather than mow and having been a landscaper for many years I couldn’t care less whether my lawn is mowed or not, or even if it’s level. If you pass a house with a yard full of weeds six feet tall and bushes hugging the upper windows, you can bet a guy lives there who works on a lawn crew someplace. Moles and molehills, eh, big deal.

But, when Moleman invades the real garden, it’s a different thing. That’s where my food grows, and I was hoping he’d stay out back with the cucumbers and cantalopes I don’t really need. The drought sent Moleman in search of new hunting zones, and that means the real garden he never knew about before. Crap. That means problems for me.

mole pit trap

Cool idea, won’t harm the mole if you empty the trap quickly and before the rain comes or the sprinklers turn on. I do doubt that it will catch many moles, though. Plans from the University of Missouri Extension article, Controlling Nuisance Moles.

Moles don’t intentionally harm plants. Moles eat worms and grubs mostly, although any subterranean insect could turn into lunch for a mole. Moles aren’t nearly as destructive to gardens as gophers, which prefer a vegetarian diet. If you have gophers, you’ll know it, because gophers will dig tunnels underneath a row of plants and pull the plants down, just like in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Moles leave tunnels behind that they never use again, but other critters like voles take advantage of them and use that underground network to harvest the plants the moles skipped. Moles get the blame for that, but moles don’t care about plants, they want meat. If the meat is curled around the roots of a plant they’ll rip the plant apart to get the meat. Eh, I kind of like moles for that, I’m not a vegetarian either. It just really pisses me off when Moleman churns up the plants I do like to eat. I need those.

Getting rid of moles usually means finding ways to kill them. You can buy poison baits, most of which a mole will completely ignore because moles hunt live food. You can try spike traps, devices the Viet Cong vets out there will immediately appreciate, because they drive steel stakes through the mole when it passes through. Not easy to make these things work, though, because you have to learn the mole’s habits and identify which tunnels they use every day and which ones they just use once. The ones that they use just once are the foraging tunnels, and those are what cause the most problems. Unless you set the trap in the tunnel that connects to the den, you won’t kill the mole.

mole pit trap

Seemed like a decent idea, but I had little confidence in it. I did try my best, following the directions of the Extension Service carefully and using the other tricks I learned in Mines and Booby-Traps training. Photo by J.T. Hats, all rights reserved.

Having dealt with Moleman for several years, managing to find a marginally stable coexistence with the little guy, I imagine that Moleman’s den must be very much like the Vaults in the old Fallout games I still play and enjoy. He certainly has a lounge and a television down there, and all the doors have complicated locks. If all he did was build that den and shop at Kroger, I’d be a happy neighbor. I find it sad that his chosen profession wreaks havoc with my efforts to grow food. I hate it when an animal moves into the garden and I have to contrive ways to kill it. I always look for other solutions, and usually the garden gets completely destroyed before I find one.

There is a non-lethal trap that various Extension Agents recommend, and I have tried that with Moleman but he seems to know about it already. If you find a major tunnel, one the mole uses daily, you’re supposed to dig a pit and place an empty coffee can in it, just below the tunnel level. Cover the pit with a board so the mole won’t spook when it finds the new construction, and the mole should fall into the empty can. Then you can take the mole to the mole zoo, or the mole park where all the happy moles live in a peaceful and non-destructive mole society.

covered mole trap

A plywood cover, edges sealed with loose dirt, and I’m ready to catch a small blind animal.

Well, I think Moleman has internet service down there in his Vault, because I did try this last year and Moleman just spent an extra five minutes filling the empty can with dirt. Damned internet! Everybody knows everything now!

The things that do work, where moles are concerned, require attention and bloodshed. The best way to get rid of a mole involves a shovel and some violent patience. Water the infested area and after a few hours, come back with a shovel and sit for awhile. Moles forage in the root zone where the worms live, and damp soil creates a feeding frenzy. If you see a tunnel extending, set the spade behind it and pry the mole out of his habitat. Smashing is lots easier than catching and releasing the mole in Mole Heaven somewhere.

I guess I’ll just live with Moleman for the time being and see what happens. To catch him or kill him I’d probably do more damage to the garden than he does, and maybe he’ll improve things a bit. If moles were social animals, like groundhogs and gophers, I’d feel much differently, but moles like to live alone. If Moleman hangs around, I’ll only have one to contend with, because moles defend their territory against other moles. My primary weapon against Moleman is probably time. Moles only live for a few years. Moleman is old enough in mole terms to get social security now, he’s been here that long.

mole trap without mole

Moleman was not fooled and spent probably five minutes filling up the coffee can with dirt before continuing on his way to mine the muskmelon patch. One of these days I’ll back the car out of the drive and into a similar trap, built by Moleman. He’s not stupid.

Last year, in the wet spring, I did have a chance to terminate Moleman with extreme prejudice. When I walked to the back garden one morning I heard a strange chortling and chirring from the grass and went to investigate. Moleman was up top that day, hunting worms in the upper layer of turf and complaining that I was in the area. I grabbed him and caught him, but he had a firm grip on the grass around him and I felt that if I pulled any harder, I might pull him apart. I thought about it awhile, then I let him go, and he probably still writes exciting stories about the experience on the mole internet forums.

Life is life, and every life is important, whether it’s plant or animal doesn’t really matter. You can’t save everything, of course, but sometimes you can save something. I may regret not killing Moleman that day, since he’s already uprooted half of my blackeyed peas. Maybe I can eat something else. Living with a pint-sized mining machine is kind of cool.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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