Q: I’m normally not one to worry about appearances but I take a heck of a lot of pleasure in a well-manicured yard. In the past few years I’ve gone green around my garden by successfully ditching synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. All is fine and well aside from the current bane of my existence: moles. The little vermin have left my lawn looking like a moon crater.

I can’t figure out how to rid my yard of the pests without resorting to jaws-of-death mole traps that are actually illegal to use in my state (ssssh). After a couple of successful trapping sessions, I think I’ve remedied the situation but I’m guessing they’ll return sooner than later. They always do. And when they do, I’d like to try something else that’s safe, humane and perhaps most importantly, legal. Any thoughts?

 

Please make the talpidaen terror stop, 


— JR, Belfair, Wash.

A: Ack! Sorry to hear about your mole mess, JR, and that you had to employ a contraband trapping device to put an end to it. I am, however, glad that you didn’t resort to Bill-Murray-in-"Caddyshack" tactics (i.e.: fatigues and explosives).

Before moving on to discussing safe and humane mole deterrent techniques, the act of mole trapping has an interesting history worth noting. Once upon a time before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of chemical pesticides, traditional molecatchers or “wanters” (yep, it was a lucrative skilled trade) traveled from farm to farm, bagging the buggers with handmade wooden traps in exchange for meals and shelter from farmers or property owners. They’d also be paid an additional fee for each mole caught. This antiquated pest removal tactic has pretty much been replaced with DIY commercial traps and poisons but in the UK, traditional mole-catching techniques have re-emerged with groups like the British Traditional Molecatchers Register and the Guild of British Molecatchers.

It’s widely acknowledged that trapping is the most effective and traditional way to end a mole’s reign of garden-destroying terror but it’s also not the most humane, as the state of Washington has made pretty clear with Initiative 713, a law that prohibits the use of “body-gripping” traps to capture any fur-bearing animal including gophers and moles. You didn’t specify what kind of trap you used, JR … even if it wasn’t a body-gripping one, you’d still need a permit to use it.

Then there’s poisoned mole bait, which like trapping, isn’t the most humane or environmentally safe way to go particularly since it sounds like you’ve made a concerted effort to keep chemical pesticides of all sorts out of your garden. Plus, mole poison isn’t target-selective so you’d risk killing other forms of wildlife as well as pets. And don't reach for rodent bait because moles, like shrews, aren’t even rodents.

This leaves us with mole deterrent techniques. One of the most common ways to keep moles away — you’re probably dealing with Townsend’s moles, the largest North American mole — is to rid your garden of one of their primary food sources: grub. Contrary to popular belief, moles do not eat plants. They nosh on insects found beneath the soil even though all their burrowing can damage plant roots. I’d look into methods of natural grub control to prevent ’em from returning although this method isn’t foolproof since they also enjoy munching on earthworms.

A natural, homemade repellent worth looking into is a mixture of plant-based castor oil and dish soap. From what I gather, results are mixed — some extension offices recommend it, some don’t — when it comes to the effectiveness of the castor oil method. Given that it’s inexpensive and Earth-safe, I think it’s worth a shot. I’ve also come across suggestions for depositing things like lye, human hairballs, mothballs, garlic cloves, broken glass, peppers and even pickle juice into mole “runways” although the reliability of these DIY scare tactics is shaky. Another much talked about but questionable method of repelling moles is using a special ultrasonic mole psych-out device that emits a high-pitched sound that mimics the sound of another mole. If there’s one thing a mole doesn’t like it’s another mole so they may or may not take a hike. Or you could buy a beagle.

So, JR, even though mole-removal purists would say “trap, trap, trap” I’m going to recommend giving natural grub control (as a preventative measure) and castor oil (as a repellent if they do indeed return) a shot. Or you could just leave a piece of paper buried in the dirt with the home address of one of your worst enemies. One thing I wouldn’t do is feel sorry for yourself: The presence of mole means that you have healthy soil, so you do have that going for you!

— Matt

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