Many of our grass fields look as though they have been recently ploughed up, with a huge amount of freshly-turned earth on top of the grass. It is the work of moles; we are inundated with them, and they are ruining fields that have been left to grass for silage cutting in late spring.
John does trap a few moles but the enormity of the task has led him once more to call on the friendly services of our mole man, Brian, to try to eliminate some of the little 'men in black velvet'. I must admit to a division of loyalty here. I like moles and admire them for their single-minded approach to worm hunting. I've read Duncton Wood, Wind in the Willows, and any number of children's books that celebrate the mole's personality. It seems at the least churlish and in extremis, murderous, to hunt down such innocent creatures.
John does not share this view. Molehills foul up bales, silage and ruin grain samples in the harvest fields. They can damage equipment and to his agricultural eye, spoil the appearance of his meadowland. The moles must go. Well some of them at least.
Enter Brian. Plus strychnine, worms, poisons cabinet and licence. It's serious business mole hunting. The mention of the word strychnine puts me in mind of Victorian murders. Come to think of it, Brian sports a fetching set of whiskers so perhaps he harbours fantasies of participating in a period piece melodrama. Must warn Margaret, his wife.
The right worms are apparently difficult to obtain. Currently he is paying six pounds for forty fat lobworms, the sort you buy from a fishing tackle shop. Worms produced from worm/maggot farms are not enticing enough for our epicurean moles. A big fat juicy worm is preferable to a measly mealworm. I think he used almost two hundred worms in our fields.
He was back and forth to his poisons cabinet, a wonderful relic from a mobile pharmacist, to lace the worms with strychnine, before presenting them as tastefully as possible to the moles in their runs. Concerns about the impact of the poison on other wildlife were allayed by the knowledge that the worms are not left on the surface, but dropped into established mole runs. As it is difficult to communicate with a mole, the exact attraction of a strychnine-flavoured worm has never been clearly defined. The runs are sealed after the poison is put in to stop other wildlife being affected, but from the immediate cessation in mole activity, there must be a certain something in the taste.
(photograph by Bruce Rollinson)
The shock of redundancy left middle-aged Brian Alderton in a hole. He explains that to find a way out he kept on digging.
Midsummer's Day June 1996, 5am. I'm early off to work for the 6am shift. It turns out to be a great day. At 12.3Opm the management calls to say, "Can you stay on for a meeting after your shift finishes at 1pm - OK, no problem?" At 1.15pm the meeting starts and by 1.30pm we have learned the company has gone bust. Collect your belongings, you are all redundant. Talk about a personal 9/11.
Thirty-seven years of experience as a lithographer are of no use in a hi-tech world governed by computers. But the long view was the least of my worries. In 24 hours time I had a marquee and 50 guests coming to my wife's surprise 50th birthday party. Also colleagues from work.
Word went round but at the party not a word about yesterday. The evening went well, people staying over. When everybody had left on Sunday evening, I told my wife what had happened. Two years on the dole followed because of a redundancy policy.
What do I do now? A friend of mine, a gamekeeper, suggested I try mole catching. Could the government help with a course? "You must be joking". In my early 50s, nobody wanted to employ me because of new technology. One of my pet hates are computers and there was no way I was going to be forced into using one.
But I did find someone who could get me on a course (needed to get my strychnine certificate) which I went on, to start work catching the characters in black velvet waistcoats. I went out with my gamekeeper friend to learn trapping, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
So it went from there. I did a little bit of gardening also to provide an income and slowly built my business up over the coming years. Most of my friends and colleagues thought I was mad, who could make a living catching moles? I knew I could.
Well six and a half years later I have proved them wrong. I have slowly built up hundreds of customers who know me as a person, not as a business. I enjoy the outdoor life but not necessarily the English weather. My work colleagues are now partridges, pheasants, rabbits, hares, foxes, kestrels and red kites and unbelievably the RAF "whose pilots are always practising round the York area".
To be out there in the countryside looking back at the roads and some days not even seeing a person can be a solitary existence but I enjoy it. My mobile phone is my only bit of modern technology. It's basically there for emergencies in case I fall or slip while getting over fences that are usually strung with my least favourite thing, barbed wire.
My life has changed and I live and work in the beautiful countryside. Fortunately moles on a whole do not live in it. The mole is a beautiful creature whose skin was highly treasured. It is very hardworking and one mole can shift a lot of earth by day or night as they work in four hourly cycles. It is a pity that such a lovely creature can cause havoc in gardens and create problems in agriculture. It undermines crops and its molehills smother crops and grass; the tunnels that it leaves can be a hazard to horses and people.
My day consists of either trapping moles or going into the countryside using poisons. My working year changes as the seasons progress. In winter it is mainly poisoning on farms and country estates. As summer approaches this changes more to gardens, sports fields and horse paddocks.
My work takes me all over North Yorkshire but I do try and restrict this because of too much travelling time.
From country estates of thousands of acres to small back gardens, the scale is enormous. It has brought me in contact with lots of interesting people and when I go out each day I never know who I will meet or be having a morning coffee with. So my 31/6 in 1996 has turned out to be a life-changing process for me. I wish I could have gone down this road years ago, instead of having hundreds of customers I would have had thousands.
The main problem is you only have so many hours in a day and alas winter means shorter ones.
Gone are the days when you could go into most chemists and say, "A quarter pound of strychnine please." Many of the old timers who used to do this sort of work have now passed on, and the few that remain cannot cope with the mountain of paperwork that Defra creates. Sadly to say as I get ever nearer retirement I could be one of these. But I can never see me hanging up my mole traps.
Brian's a typically cross-grained Yorkshireman who, some years ago, found himself facing redundancy. He decided to re-train - as a molecatcher. It's not the most obvious of career choices, but he and his family have found it rewarding.
Brian was soon followed in his underground pursuits by his sons, Scott and Stephen. The common pursuit of the mole has, understandably, drawn father and sons much close together.
Ken Cooper visited the Aldertons in their home in the village of Tockwith and accompanied them out and about on mole patrol.
Scott and Stephen Alderton
(text and photographs from the BBC website)
To contact the Alderton family by telephone or e-mail, visit their website at www.molepatrol.co.uk. This is not a paid advertisement but please mention that you saw this link at www.dumville.org.