How to identify shrews, moles & voles

Updated April 17, 2017

Although easily mistaken for each other, there are practical differences between moles, shrews and voles. While voles can sometimes damage gardens by gnawing the bark off trees and eating tubers like potatoes and carrots, moles and shrews are actually beneficial, hunting pest insects and aerating the soil. Distinguishing between these species can help a gardener make informed pest control decisions.

Is the animal in question furry? If not, then it mostly likely isn't a mole, vole or shrew. A handful of exceptions exist, such as the naked mole rat of the East Africa, but these species are rarely found in front yards and gardens.

Is it under a foot in length? The world's largest mole is the Russian desman, a mere 8 inches long, while the largest vole reaches just over 9 inches. All species of shrew are considerably smaller.

Does it live in a tunnel? If not, then it may be a mouse, squirrel or other woodland mammal. Moles, voles and shrews live primarily underground and rarely, if ever, emerge from their holes.

Is it a mole? If its front paws are two to three times thicker than its hind paws, then yes. Generally, moles span 5 to 7 inches from snout to tail.

Is it a vole? Like moles, mature voles are generally 5 to 7 inches from snout to tail, though some may grow slightly larger. However, they can be distinguished from moles by their front paws, which are roughly the same size as their hind paws.

Is it a shrew? If its front and hind paws are roughly the same size and it is only 4 to 5 inches in length, then you have a shrew. Remember, however, that shrews live underground. Otherwise, they may be easily confused for mice.


Avoid handling wild shrews, as their bites are venomous. Although not deadly for humans, their bites can still cause considerable discomfort.

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