British moles in history

This is a video of a mole in a nature reserve in Italy in winter.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

To catch or not to catch?

Thursday 14 February 2013

Today the British mole (Talpa europaea) population has reached record numbers.

In a countryside where so many mammal species are declining that has to be good news. Or is it?

Many gardeners like my old mate John have a love-hate relationship with this tiny subterranean velveteen-covered animal.

John is a wildlife fan. He volunteers at his local nature reserve. He loves all living creatures.

His garden is an oasis of biodiversity. John has filled it with trees, bat and bird boxes, a pond, rough areas and special insect and bee-friendly plantings.

All are there to encourage all sorts of wildlife.

Then the family of moles moved in. Their many molehills sprang up across the lawn like black pyramids. What to do?

Suddenly, and surprisingly, John got just as interested in molecatchers as in the moles.

He has discovered the profession has a long and fascinating history.

The Romans used earthenware pots filled with water as traps – we know this because we still find their mole traps in Roman digs.

The clay pot method lasted until medieval times when traps got more sophisticated.

Clay traps were fragile, liable to break in poor weather or under a horse’s hoof. Molecatchers turned to wooden traps, home carved or made by local wheelwrights.

Early molecatchers often moved from farm to farm to ply their deadly trade. They got food and lodgings and were paid for each mole they caught.

Moleskins could also be sold for extra money. Plumbers used them for wiping molten lead joints and moleskin trousers and waistcoats were popular hardwearing clothing.

At the height of the moleskin trade four million English moleskins each year were exported to the US.

Molecatching was a lucrative business – a good catcher’s income was more than a teacher’s.

The skins were so valuable that poachers would steal traps for the dead moles inside.

Molecatching as a rural skill was very much a family business. Skills, tricks and tips were passed from father to son. Molecatchers were very often distinctive local characters, tramping the rural estates in their moleskin waistcoats. They were celebrated in song and story.

It took over a hundred moleskins to make a waistcoat, so these were the best advert a good catcher could wear.

And the molecatchers developed great feelings of respect for their adversary, the wily “little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.” That was the famous toast of the Jacobites who loved the mole.

Their arch-rival William III was killed when his horse tripped on a molehill and threw him to his death.

There was a vast body of other country lore and superstition surrounding the mole.

A mole’s foot, with its distinctive double thumb, worn around the neck was said to prevent rheumatism.

During the early part of the industrial revolution, as machinery and greedy farmers threw agricultural labourers out of work, many turned molecatcher.

Northamptonshire poet John Clare (1793-1864) wrote his poem The Mole Catcher about these colourful characters.

As so often, Clare’s theme was his sadness at the changes in the local countryside wrought by profit-driven industrial development and enclosures.

He once could thrash and mow and hold a plough / Ere he was forced to seek the parish bread / Broke down by age he feels a beggar now / When to the overseers his wants are fed.

The industrial revolution also brought first steel traps and then went on to bring a much greater problem both for molecatchers and for moles – strychnine.

This poison needed little skill in use. It proved cheaper than paying a skilled molecatcher to trap moles individually.

The use of poisons became widespread. Moles could be cleared in half the time and at half the cost as traditional trapping. Mole populations declined.

The use of strychnine was finally banned in 2006 and mole numbers started to grow again.

John has discovered with the increase in mole numbers there is something of a resurgence in traditional molecatchers and their skills.

John however is also studying the mole itself.

He is learning about its earthworm diet, its huge storage larders, its digging in strict four-hour shifts, the almost unbelievable depths to which it can mine.

He has discovered they are strong swimmers so flooding their burrows doesn’t get rid of them.

Moles live alone fighting viciously to protect their burrows from other moles. They come together only briefly to breed.

Almost blind, they have remarkably acute hearing. Their front legs are sturdy and strong, ideal for digging. The back legs have almost atrophied. All in all it’s a remarkable little creature.

So there, living beneath his lawn, is John’s dilemma.

Should he welcome the mole as a fascinating addition to his garden fauna?

Or should he summon the man in the moleskin waistcoat?

Star-nosed moles would put the winners of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest to shame.

The star-nosed mole has several unusual abilities. One of them is “sniffing” underwater by blowing bubbles and quickly re-inhaling them, detecting odors of its prey through the water. The moles’ “star” nose features a ring of tiny, pink tentacles and is the most sensitive known touch organ of any mammal: here.

10 thoughts on “British moles in history

  1. Ah, does it cause too much destruction? In my garden, squirrels are the chief pest. My grandmother taught me a wonderful secret: dilute castor oil in water and water over bulbs. Squirrels really find the smell repelling–I wonder if it would work on moles?


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