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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

Moles: Masters of the underworld

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

OK, homeowners and gardeners, it's time for a deep, cleansing breath before reading this story.

Ready?

Breathe.

OK, now think of something peaceful and concentrate on it for a few seconds.

Breathe again.

Let's begin.

Today's topic: moles.

Whoa!!! Calm down, calm down. I hear you raving about those confounded critters (you'd probably use more colorful adjectives, but this is a family newspaper so we're toning things down) that wreck your yard, reduce your fine-tuned landscape to mush and foil every attempt you can think of to capture the little jerks.

Among gardeners or folks who simply enjoy having a relatively even yard, moles are the bane of their existence. They're evil and vile and at some point trying to get rid of them becomes personal.

But the only true way to win the mole wars is to apply some perspective. Trying to go mano o mano with these odd creatures who live in an invisible world will only drive you crazy so it's best to understand your foe and, seriously, respect it.

Dr. Joe Bruseo holds a stuffed mole, complete with its long nails, in the Bowling Green State University life science department. Dr. Joe Bruseo holds a stuffed mole, complete with its long nails, in the Bowling Green State University life science department.
Enlarge

It's not the moles' fault that the grubs and earthworms and bugs that they like to eat are in our yards. They're just passing through on the way to their next meal.

Think of it like this:

"We live in their neighborhood. They're woodland animals — no more a yard pest than a deer. "

That's Tom Schmidt, aka "The Moleman," who has been trapping moles in the Cincinnati area since the mid-'80s. His point is that the natural home of moles is wooded areas, but as development crowds into their habitat, the moles — just like deer — do what comes natural to them and go where the food is: your yard.

Know your enemy

There are six types of moles in North America, three of which can end up in your yard, according to the Ohio State University Extension Service. They're insectivores, which is self-explanatory: they eat bugs. This can be a good thing because they keep down grub populations and other insects that are pests. In the process of this work, moles can help aerate the ground.

The problem is that as moles go about eating and aerating, they wreak havoc on the landscape. They're kind of like the guys you hire to do pest control and who wantonly spray your entire yard. Not only do the bugs get killed, but half your plants are gone and you've got a big brown spot of dead grass in the front.

It is commonly believed that if you control grubs in your yard you won't have moles. But both the OSU extension service and northwest Ohio mole trapper Zane Maxwell said this is a misconception because moles eat a lot more than grubs.

"The biggest mistake people make is thinking grubs are their only food source," said Mr. Maxwell, who operates Mole Patrol out of Bowling Green. "About 70 to 80 percent of their diet is earthworms. So any yard that looks good and has green grass is going to have earthworms."

Oh, the irony

The sad thing is, the better your soil and the more plant-friendly it is, the more likely it is to provide five-star dining for moles. They like biomass, which is another way of saying that what makes your yard good for growing, makes it good for eating.

So the harder you work making a pretty yard with nice raised beds and soil that works easily, the more inviting it is for moles looking for fat, juicy earthworms to chow down on.

"I honestly think that moles are such a problem these days because of people's yard habits, with wanting one yard prettier than the next," Mr. Schmidt said.

Moles move around a lot. A 5-ounce mole will consume 45 to 50 pounds of worms and insects each year, according to the OSU extension service. They can dig surface tunnels at approximately 18 feet per hour and they travel through existing tunnels at about 80 feet per minute.

They live in a three-dimensional underground world — contrary to common belief they have eyes and are not blind, but they're generally closed because they don't need them — using their highly attuned sense of smell and pan-shaped front claws to scrabble around.

They tunnel at various levels depending on the time of the year, generally going deeper in the winter to get below the frost line and surfacing this time of year when food is plentiful and the ground is easy to work.

Think of the tunnels as roads the animals travel as they look for food. They're not always eating when they're moving around, just cruising from spot to spot for something creepy and crawly for supper.

In the process... well, you know what happens.

"With the surface damage, he's not looking for food as much as he's traveling," Mr. Schmidt said. "He's sort of looking for it at the same time, but he's not going to run into a bunch of food."

Waging the war

So, what are you going to do? You can live with the moles and basically wait them out. If the food runs out, they'll move on, but who knows what your yard will look like by then? This strategy can leave a lot of devastation in its wake.

Or you can go about the exceedingly frustrating process of going to war with them.

For starters, no doubt a co-worker or your Uncle Al or a well-meaning neighbor has suggested you:

Stick gum, razor blades, pickle juice, cat urine, broken glass, human hair, and all manner of junk in their tunnels. The most common is mothballs, which both Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Schmidt, along with the OSU extension office, say simply don't work.

Moles do not smell mothballs and leave. They simply smell mothballs and move on. Poison doesn't work either because the animals can't eat it and it doesn't smell like food.

"I'm sure if you could get the moles to eat the poison it would exterminate them," Mr. Maxwell said. "But they can't see and they eat by vibration and sense of smell so it's very hard for them to eat a poison."

Then there are the various "sonic" devices you see at hardware stores. They don't work either, for obvious reasons: moles are not impressed by noise, especially when they hear it all the time.

"If you live on top of the bar, you get used to the jukebox," Mr. Schmidt said.

"I've never seen them work," Mr. Maxwell said. "I've caught moles that are right next to the train tracks and I'm sure that trains vibrate the ground all the time."

Traps

Which brings us to the conclusion of this tale. You can't see them. You can't force them to eat Juicy Fruit chewing gum. You might be able to take a hose and flush them out, but moles are actually good swimmers and you have to catch one at just the right moment for that to work.

Your best bet: trapping them. Given that Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Maxwell are both trappers, we can't just take their word for it that it's the only method that works, so we'll let a couple of objective experts weigh in here:

"Trapping is the most effective and practical method of mole control," says the OSU extension Web site.

"Trapping moles is the preferred method of removing moles," says the University of Arkansas extension Web site. "Good mole traps are effective and dispatch the mole quickly."

You don't have to hire someone to trap the moles, and various spring-loaded, scissor-types that you bury and others are on the market and available at the same place you can buy sonic sticks and poison. They generally cost between $15 and $30.

There are two keys to making this work. One is knowing how to set the traps, which can be frustrating because of the way they're designed. The other is knowing where to put them.

It's important to find a "run," which is a long, relatively straight bulge in the soil that the mole uses to get around. These are the main thoroughfares of moledom and there's no point in setting a trap in the raised dirt areas or odd tributaries because he's not likely to revisit those places.

Signs of life

Tromp down all the runs one day and then come back the next and if they're raised back up, that means the mole was there and may come back. That's where you want your trap.

Mr. Schmidt said trapping and killing them works because it forces the moles back to where they belong naturally: the woods.

"You're killing off the excess population that wants to come out of the woods and the reason they're coming out of the woods is because of overpopulation," he said. "You won't have any more moles than there is food."

Mr. Maxwell said he's caught as many as 32 of the animals in one yard, but that was an exceptional case. He charges a $159 set-up fee, which covers the whole season, and then $39 a mole. But he said he works with people on the per-mole portion of the cost if they have a lot of them.

The bottom line for Mr. Maxwell or Mr. Schmidt is that you can hire someone to take care of the problem or do it yourself by buying any of the various traps that are on the market. But whatever you do, they said, don't waste your time and money on poison, chewing gum, mothballs, sonic sticks, or pickle juice.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com

or 419-724-6159.



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