The Difference Between a Mole and a Vole

small rodent looking at the camera while sitting in a person's hand

Those strange tunnels in your yard are likely the work of a mole or vole, but which one is it? It’s easy to get these two furry ground dwellers confused. But once you learn their defining features and their tell-tale signs of damage, you’ll be able to spot the difference between a mole and a vole in no time. 

What do moles and voles look like?

You can quickly recognize a mole by observing its front feet, which look like wide paddles with striking claws. Moles have masterful digging skills, and it’s thanks to the massive scoops of dirt their paws can move. 

Not only are voles frequently confused for moles, but they are also often confused for mice, given their mouse-like appearance. And it doesn’t help that two of their common names are meadow mouse and field mouse. The best way to tell a vole apart from a mouse is to look at the tail: voles have short tails, while a mouse’s tail is nearly the length of its body. 

Let’s take a closer look at a mole and vole’s features side by side: 

MolesVoles
Moles have long, pointed snouts.Voles have blunt snouts.
Moles are typically 4 to 7 inches long.Voles have a slightly smaller physical build than moles but are similar in length. Voles typically measure 5 to 7 inches long. 
A mole’s eyes are so tiny that it almost appears as if they have none. Voles have black eyes that are more noticeable than a mole’s eyes.
Mole’s have no external ears. Voles have prominent ears that don’t extend past their fur. 
Moles have blackish-gray fur.Voles have a mix of chestnut-brown and black fur. 

Mole tunnels vs. vole tunnels

Other than seeing the animal with your own eyes (which sometimes can be hard to do), one of the best ways to determine which critter is digging in your yard is to investigate their tunnels. Moles and voles have different burrowing techniques, and knowing what tunnel clues to look for can help you solve the mystery. 

Moles

Delving into the earth with their broad paws, moles leave behind a volcanic-shaped soil mound in the yard. If you’re finding several of these molehills in the lawn, don’t panic –– moles are solitary creatures, which means it’s unlikely a whole mole family is digging up your yard. 

Moles are meat-eaters, and they like to search for grubs, earthworms, and insects near the soil’s surface. As they tunnel near the surface, they lift the soil above them and create a noticeable ridge in the yard. When you walk on this ridge, you may feel your feet gently sink into the ground. 

Moles also dig deep runways 12 to 18 inches below the soil’s surface. They use these tunnels for daily travel and to forage for food during the winter and dry summer months when food near the surface is scarce. 

Moles typically create volcanic-shaped mounds when they are creating their deep runways. Soil mounds are less often associated with surface tunnels.

Voles

Voles don’t create large, volcanic mounds of dirt when they dig their entrances. So if your lawn has piles of excavated earth, it’s probably the work of a mole and not a vole (although it also could be that excavator you rented). A vole’s entryway into its burrow is typically 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. 

The two most common types of voles that invade yards and gardens are the meadow vole and the woodland vole (also known as pine vole). A common sign of the meadow vole is the criss-cross runways they build between the entrances of their underground burrows. These open travel lanes are usually 1 ½ inches wide, can be completely free of grass, and often appear as small ditches in the ground.

Woodland voles do not create these surface runways. They dig tunnels 3 to 4 inches below the surface and spend most of their time causing damage underground. 

Unlike moles, which are solitary animals, voles often live with other voles. A single burrow system may house several adult voles and their offspring. 

Mole damage vs. vole damage

Not only do these critters damage your lawn’s appearance with their tunnels, but they can also damage the plants in your gardens and orchards. Here’s the type of destruction you can expect from moles and voles: 

Moles

Moles often create brown grass trails in the yard by tearing up your turf’s root system. They also may dislodge plants in the garden or flower bed as they tunnel for earthworms and grubs. Moles are meat-eaters, so they’re not going to harm your plants by gnawing on them. 

Voles

These herbivores will often put plants through distress, especially your fruit trees. Voles can cause extensive damage to orchards, mature trees, and young tees by gnawing on their bark. 

If voles gnaw entirely around the trunk or roots, they may kill the tree by girdling it. Girdling is when the tree’s flow of nutrients and water is disrupted. 

Signs of vole damage on trees and shrubs include: 

  • Gnaw marks about ⅛ inch wide and ⅜ inch long. The gnaw marks appear in irregular patches and various angles on the roots and tree bark. 
  • The injured tree grows more slowly or looks off-color.
  • The tree has reduced fruit harvest.
  • When the ground is covered in snow, damage to trees can appear a foot or more up the trunk. Voles will often take advantage of the snow to explore new areas without the threat of predators. 

Voles also can wreak havoc in the garden. They like to eat a wide range of veggies, including artichokes, beets, carrots, celery, spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.

Mole behavior vs. vole behavior

Moles and voles usually have varying levels of activity at different times of the year. So, when are these critters likely to act up?

Moles 

You’re most likely to find a mole’s surface tunnels in spring and fall when grubs and earthworms are near the soil’s surface. They spend winter and dry summer months in their deeper tunnels searching for food. Moles are active year-round and don’t hibernate. 

Voles

Similar to moles, voles also are active year-round and don’t hibernate. They typically cause damage to woody plants during late fall through early spring. Their green vegetation is scarce during this time of year, so they must seek food elsewhere. 

You’ll likely find lawn damage in late winter or early spring when the snow melts and reveals the criss-cross runways. Voles will often explore new open areas thanks to the snow cover protecting them from predators. 

Where do moles and voles live?

Moles

Moles dig their tunnels through most of North America, Asia, and Europe. They inhabit lawns, golf courses, fields, meadows, orchards, and forests. Mole’s are excellent swimmers, too, making them right at home in wetlands and riparian habitats. 

Voles

Similar to moles, voles also inhibit North America, Asia, and Europe. You’ll find these rodents scurrying through prairies, meadows, woodlands, grassy fields, and lawns. 

What are the benefits of moles and voles?

Moles and voles are a nuisance in the lawn, but both animals play essential roles in the ecosystem. Let’s take a closer look at some of their benefits: 

Moles

  • Moles feed on grubs and insects that some homeowners try hard to get rid of, such as ants and termites
  • Moles can help promote aeration in the soil by building their tunnels.
  • Their tunneling allows organic matter to travel deeper into the ground.
  • They are a food source for many predators, including snakes, coyotes, foxes, and hawks. 

Voles

  • Their frequent consumption of vegetation stimulates decomposition.
  • Their nutrient-rich fecal matter is beneficial to plants.
  • Voles are a food source for other animals, such as hawks, snakes, and raccoons.

Why is the correct identification of moles and voles important? 

When you’ve got an animal digging holes in your yard, you’ll probably want to put some control measures in place (or maybe Fido just needs some better training). 

But before you can take the necessary control steps, you’ll need to identify the animal correctly. Vole control isn’t always going to work on moles, and mole control isn’t always going to work on voles. You also might be surprised to learn that it might be another animal, such as a pocket gopher or groundhog. 

The bottom line: If you misidentify the animal and use improper control methods, you may have trouble catching it, and the damage might continue to worsen. 

Call in the pros for damage control

Is it proving impossible to manage the mole or vole problem in your lawn? Call in a professional exterminator for help. A pest control expert will remove the animal as efficiently and safely as possible while sparing you from a DIY pest control headache. 

And if your lawn is in shambles from tunnels and runways, hire a local lawn care professional to tidy up the turf. They can aerate the soil, spread fertilizer, mow the grass, and restore balance to your lawn. 

Main Photo Credit: Tatyana Kazakova | Pixabay

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.