Teme Valley Musings, June 2020

by Stephanie Mocroft

The subject I’ve chosen for June is a mammal that we rarely see but, by dint of its abundant works, is one we are all aware of, it is the mole. In The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Graham portrayed Mole as a rather timid creature, enjoying warm friendships with practical Ratty and boastful Toad, content to be guided by wise Badger. In real life, moles live extremely solitary lives and can be so ferocious that rivals sometimes fight each other to the death.  For its home, a single mole digs a 200-meter network of tunnels beneath a 600-square metre area. The tunnels are routinely patrolled, both day and night, and any earthworm unfortunate enough to drop through the roof is swiftly devoured.

Moles are superbly adapted tunnellers. Drop one on a lawn, and it will dig itself out of sight in a mere fifteen seconds. They have fine short fur, large powerful spade-like front paws and ears that can be shut against the dirt. In twenty minutes a mole can move 6kg of soil, which is amazing work for an animal only twelve centimetres long. On the rare occasion when a mole is spotted above ground it’s always a surprise how tiny it is. And how huge the amount of soil in its many molehills. And how fine and friable the soil that is pushed to the surface, even on dense heavy clay.

I often gather molehill soil and use it along with garden compost to top up my raised vegetable beds. But my orchard molehills frequently trip me up, particularly in winter when they are frozen and obscured by frost. More than once I’ve fallen over whilst carrying my chicken drinkers across the snow, at which point I’ve had a few unfavourable words to say about moles!

Moles have an excellent sense of smell, but limited hearing and poor sight.Their sensitive snouts and fearsome array of needle-like teeth enable them to rapidly fall on their prey. If they have a surplus of food they can immobilise earthworms with a single nip, then store them in a larderfor future consumption. Conversely, if worms are in short supply they set to and dig extra lengths of tunnel. If that doesn’t work they resort to hunting above ground, seeking out alternative food such as insects and carrion.

Mating takes place in February or March, after which the animals immediately separate.The female later gives birth in her own tunnel network, in a special nursery side-chamber lined with leaves and grass. In May or June she encourages her youngsters to leave home to fend for themselves. At this point of their lives they are forced to travel some distance above ground and become vulnerable to predation by owls and foxes. However they are said to taste unpleasant, which presumably affords them an element of protection.

Gardeners, farmers and golf-course owners are not fond of moles and many remedies have been employed to deter them. The mole-catcher of old still plies his trade here and there, but generally the mole carries on his centuries-old ways – and we put up with him.