Thursday, August 13, 2015

Gopher vs. Mole

Photo credit:  Leonardo Weiss, Gopher
On June 3, 1888 Isaac B. Werner wrote in his journal:  "[John] Garvin and I at hand replanting Golden Beauty [corn] listed ground so much taken by the gophers or moles following the subsoiler."  I can certainly identify with Isaac's annoyance, for we regularly find mounds of dirt on our lawn, as well as sinking into shallow tunnels dug too near the surface.  Like Isaac, I tend to use the terms "gophers or moles" interchangeably or spoken together as if they were a single hyphenated word.

2014 row of transplanted maple seedlings

Last summer I was so proud of my row of transplanted maple seedlings.  We caged them to protect them from deer, and every day I carried water to them.  By autumn they had grown to the top of their cages, and the two at the far end of this photograph had done particularly well because they received more sunlight.

Mounds of dirt from tunnels under our lawn
Early this spring I walked out to admire the end two, which I could not so easily see from the house, and as I approached the first one, I couldn't see it.  I walked all the way there and even walked around it in disbelief.  It had disappeared!  I looked up and down the row and all the others were bare from losing their leaves in winter, but they were still in their cages.  The tree at the far end, which had grown quite tall, was leaning a little.  I walked over to make sure it wasn't growing through its cage, and as I reached to pull it straight, it came loose in my hand, cut off at the soil.
Missing cottonwood seedling pulled underground

Gophers or moles had pulled one tree straight down nibbling at its roots and young trunk until it was gone, and was in the process of doing the same to the second tree.  Naturally they chose the finest trees!

Recently our nurseryman Roy was here with his crew to plant some blue spruce trees we added to our landscape,  (See "My New Landscape," 7-31-2014 in the blog archives) and  I told him the story of my disappearing maple.  He listened to my accounting of the destruction by either a gopher or a mole, and when I finished he quietly gave me an education.  "It was probably a gopher," he said, explaining to me that gophers eat earthworms, grubs, vegetables such as carrots, radishes, and lettuce, and the roots of shrubs!  Apparently they also like tender young maple trees, which must have offered a fine feast during winter when other delicacies were scarce.

Photo credit:  Kenneth Catania, Vanderbilt University, Mole
The greedy gopher(s) were not finished with their underground thefts.  This summer as I walked the row of cottonwood seedlings that I had been tending, I saw a pencil-sized hole in the center of the mounded earth watering saucer where a healthy seedling had been just hours before.  The soil was not disturbed as it would have been if the little tree had been yanked up.  Instead, the supple young leaves had slipped easily through the hole as the seedling was pulled downward by the hungry gopher!

Moles, on the other hand, prefer earthworms and other small invertebrates they find in the soil.  As a gardener, I was annoyed to learn their preference for earthworms, but their dining habits are even more gruesome.  The mole's saliva contains a toxin which can paralyze earthworms without killing them, and moles store the still-living, paralyzed worms in underground larders to consume later.

The photograph at the beginning of this blog, taken in Ano-Nuevo State Park in California, is of a pocket gopher.  There are about 35 species of gophers found in Central and North America.  The photograph just above is of an Eastern Mole, 'ScalopusAquaticus,' a true mole of  the Talpidae family.  They and their close relatives, particularly shrews, are found all over the world.

1921 Debenham & Freebody ad
An interesting story I learned while doing the research for this blog involves Queen Alexandra, wife of the UK King Edward VII.  When the queen purchased a mole-fur coat she started a fashion trend.  Moles had become a serious agricultural problem in Scotland, but the queen's trend turned Scotland's pest problem into a lucrative industry.

Not only is mole leather extremely soft and supple, the pelts have a uniquely velvety texture.  Animals that live on the surface tend to have longer fur with a nap that lies in a specific direction.  Because moles need to move backward and forward in their underground tunnels, their fur tends to be short, dense, and lacking any directional nap.

The likely culprit stealing Isaac Werner's corn and nibbling off my young maple and cottonwood trees was a gopher, but the culprit gobbling up the beneficial earthworms that gardeners love is more likely to be a mole.


The Blog Fodder said...

Isaac would have had no access to our modern tools but his worked likely just as well.
Not sure which one creates the problems in Saskatchewan but I think pocket gopher as it eats roots - dandelion and alfalfa especially. Lawns are one thing but hay fields can be totally ruined as the mounds interfere with cutting.. People have tried using a tractor pulled torpedo plow which makes a tunnel and leaves bait pellets behind. Others have had better luck with anhydrous ammonia from a special tank on the back of an ATV or Quad. They are hard to beat but run on a "seven-year" cycle so something must kill them.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

His solution was to soak the corn in something offensive to the pests. He used a can and soaked the corn overnight. He described the process but didn't mention the results, but he did use it more than a single year, so he must have felt that it helped deter them.

Talya Tate Boerner said...

Oh my gosh how frustrating (for you and Isaac)! I've never had a gopher/mole problem (knock on wood) and hope I never do. What adventures we gardeners have!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

S.W. from Santa Fe wrote: "I enjoyed this blog very much, Lyn. We have moles and gophers and fight them every year! I've never had one drag a tree down a hole, thought. lol

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

G.C. from California wrote: "Interesting article and timely for us. We have a gopher in our front yard that is destroying what little is left of our lawn due to the extreme drought we're enduring. I've been like Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" trying to catch the varmit."

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Sometimes comments come to me directly or on face book, and I share them because I think readers of my blog will enjoy them. I loved these two!