She is an unlikely national cause: 12cm long, less than 50 grams in weight, grubby grey-brown in colour and nearly blind. But a group of politicians and scientists in Tokyo is campaigning for the rights of this unrecognised victim of the tension between two of Asia greatest powers.
She is the Senkaku mole, a highly endangered inhabitant of Uotsuri, a tiny island less than two miles (3km) wide, that is the biggest of the isolated rocks and islets known as the Senkaku group. The territory is controlled by Japan but claimed with increasing stridency by China, which calls it the Diaoyutai. And caught in the middle of this clash of giants is the mole.
The Japanese Government bans anyone from landing on the islands, to prevent anti-Chinese nationalists from planting flags, mounting demonstrations and otherwise provoking Beijing. But the ban also extends to the biologists who are desperate to confirm the wellbeing of the Senkaku mole, which has been seen only once, 23 years ago.
Now a group of eminent Japanese, including politicians and a mountaineer, have founded the Senkaku Mole Protection Association to champion its cause.
"Uotsuri island, with its many indigenous species, has an extremely high academic importance as a laboratory of evolution," Yasushi Yokohata, the professor of biology who discovered the mole, said. "This is a treasury of biological diversity that should be preserved indefinitely as the common property of the people in the world."
Professor Yokohata visited the island in 1979 to carry out the only field study to be conducted there. One evening a colleague saw something moving on the ground and hit it with a slipper. The dead female specimen is so far the only Senkaku mole recorded.
"The most outstanding characteristic is the number of teeth, which are 38 compared with 42 for other Japanese moles," Professor Yokohata said. "Also, we understood that it might eat not only earthworms, but insects on the surface. Because the island is small and the moles donít need to compete with other animals for food, they expanded their range of food. Otherwise it would not have come above ground."
Uotsuri island separated from the Asian continent 20,000 years ago, and its sub-tropical ecosystem contains a number of unique animal and plant species, including beetles, shellfish and a rhododendron. But recently the situation has been altered drastically by a pair of goats introduced by nationalists to strengthen Japanís territorial claim.
Hundreds of goats now roam the island and have stripped away much of the vegetation, posing what may be a deadly threat to the moleís habitat.
"If the supply of plants dwindles, the number of worms will decrease and exposed soil will be washed away, which is all bad for the moles," Professor Yokohata said. "We have no idea how many Senkaku moles there are, and thereís a good chance the species is extinct, although I donít want to believe it."
Keep wasps, rats and other unwanted creatures out of your home with these tips from expert Simon Lambert. Simon runs Which? Local-recommended business Harry Jackson Pest Control, Worthing.
The best way to stop a mole is to catch it and remove it from the area. Gassing can be random and indiscriminate. Moles are tricky, so hire a molecatcher. This is an art that hasn't changed in hundreds of years and is worth the fee. You normally don't pay until the mole is caught.
It is a rare nature success story but one that will have gardeners groaning.
Mole populations are booming and pest controllers say their number of call outs to deal with the animals digging up lawns and fields has tripled since 2007.
According to the mole catchers there could be up to 40 million moles a 20 per cent increase on the latest estimate.
Experts put the rise down to a ban on the use of strychnine, a popular DIY extermination method, and also the foot and mouth epidemic, which stopped pest controllers and mole catchers travelling to rural areas for several months leaving populations free to expand unchecked.
The British Traditional Molecatchers Register, which represents 300 trappers, said the numbers turning to its online directory rose 50 per cent in the past year, to 1,500 users a week.
Farmer Roy Lunn, 68, from Bardsey, near Leeds, West Yorkshire, said moles were a threat to his farm. 'The fields are a mess. It's not good for farm machinery and all the soil they throw up ruins good hay,' he said.
'We've always had moles but this year has been different; our mole catcher got 85 in one go.'
Around 3,000 farmers a year used strychnine to poison moles before it was banned in 2006.
David Wembridge, of the People's Trust for Endangered Species, said Britons need to stop seeing moles as pests.
He said: 'I know gardeners may be upset if their lawns are disturbed but moles can be useful too.
'They are insectivores and their diet could include such common nasties as cockchafer larvae and wire worms which can do an awful lot of damage to plants.'
A part-time mole catcher who was nick-named "Spike", he was talking to a farmer when Bird shot him dead at the edge of a field in Carleton.
Mr Dixon, 65, leaves behind two sons, Martyn and Wayne, and six grandchildren. He lived alone in a flat in Beckgreen in Egremont.
The farmer was uninjured.
His niece, who did not want to be named, said Mr Dixon's taxi driver son Martin had known Bird, although Mr Dixon had never met his killer.
Mr Dixon's sister Margaret Earl said she was shocked as she had seen her brother on Wednesday morning, shortly before he was killed.
His brother Thomas, 64, said he believed Mr Dixon had been shot as he went to help a farmer in the valley.
"He would help anyone who asked him," he said.
His family said: "He could eat like a horse and always enjoyed his food. He always managed to retain his tall, lean figure though, which is how he gained his nickname, Spike."
Mr Dixon, a retired Sellafield process worker, was vice-chairman of the Egremont Conservative Club.
He organised regular Country and Western nights there and attended every function with his girlfriend Pat. Steward Mark Hamilton said: "Mr Dixon was a nice, respectable fella. He was well liked in here. "He will be greatly missed."
Mr Dixon's neighbour, Joan Ferguson, 64, also paid tribute to him.
She said: "He helped everybody, he was that sort of person. He was a gentleman. He did a lot for everybody, if anybody wanted him. He will be sadly missed."
Another neighbour Sandra Short, 62, said: "He was a really, really nice man, very quiet, he never caused any trouble or anything."
Sir, It is not necessary to travel back into deepest Lincolnshire of the 1870s to find the "proper" name of the mole (muldiwarp) as given by H.S. Otter of North Yorkshire (letter, April 17). Still in relatively common use by the older generation in this part of England is the word (phonetically) "mowdywarp", with the first syllable pronounced like "ow" (as in being hurt by a sharp pain) with a letter "m" in front.
The late William Rollinson, in his Cumbrian Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore (1997), gives it as moudewarp, or moudywarp, and cites moldwarp (Norwegian) and moldvarpa, which appears to be Icelandic.
Dr. C.L. Murray
Sir, Derwent May on the mole (Nature Notes, April 14) gives us, as usual, a succinct and comprehensive account of this ingenious animal. It tallies very well with my father's demonstration, item by item, over a specimen whipped from its run in the garden at Dragonby well over 80 years ago.
My father did not, I think, explain the subtle function of the soil-free velvet. But he did give me the "proper" name from the deepest Lincolnshire of his boyhood in Willingham-by-Stowe in the 1870s: muldiwarp (try "mooldiwahrp"), which I was delighted much later to relate to the German Maulwurf (muzzleshifter) or the Norwegian muldwarp (earth shifter).
1 can also confirm that the molehill can provide excellent potting compost. I have 7ft papyrus plants growing in it, and herbs and lettuce. Back to basics.
Helmsley, N Yorks
Sir, One Sunday, not long ago, when GPs still provided an out-of-hours service (letters, Feb 15 and 17), my wife picked up a mole in our garden that she thought was dead. It wasn't and it bit her quite badly. She rang her GP who assured her, that as her tetanus was up to date, an antiseptic wash and dressing would suffice: "However", he added helpfully, "if you get an irresistible urge to go out and start digging or tunnelling, ring me at once."
A FORMER Conservative Cabinet minister had moles removed from his country estate at taxpayers' expense.
John Gummer, the former environment secretary, used the parliamentary expenses system to claim more than £9,000 a year for gardening.
Mr Gummer also received hundreds of pounds to meet the costs of "treating" moles, removing jackdaw nests, tackling insect infestations and an annual "rodent service" contract. He claimed more than £100 a year for the mole treatment alone.
Only costs essential for an MP to carry out his or her parliamentary duties are supposed to be recouped. It is not clear why Mr Gummer's claims were authorised by House of Commons officials.
The former Cabinet minister, who famously allowed his daughter to be pictured with a hamburger during the BSE crisis in 1990, lives in a grange in Suffolk. He has a £60,000 mortgage on the property and initially claimed around £200 a month towards the interest on the loan.
However, he still claimed close to the maximum allowance of more than £20,000 annually during most years once his other expenses were added.
Interviews with Tony Wood-Wright, a molecatcher from Devon, and Robin Page, founder and chairman of The Countryside Restoration Trust, from Cambridgeshire, were broadcast on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme at 0745 on Friday 16 January 2009. The BBC website described the item:
Mole-catchers across the country are not suffering from the economic downturn. They are reported to be enjoying a boom because of an explosion in the mole population. Environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee visits Cambridgeshire to discover if catchers are making mountains of money out of molehills.
Adam Edwards meets an accountant turned hunter who aims to make the mole's days numbered.
Mole is, for many of us, the charming self-effacing fellow from The Wind in the Willows who finally defeated the cunning weasel and became an ageless anthropomorphic celebrity, as this year's centenary of Kenneth's Grahame's book attests. But some do not feel so warmly towards the little burrower.
It is true he makes a charming soft toy and is a champion of the Jacobites it was a molehill that tripped the horse of William III and threw the unpopular English monarch to his death in 1702 but the mole's burrows and mounds are the scourge of the nation's cricket pitches, lawns and graveyards. His unseen tunnelling is the ruination of our green and pleasant land. And there is little we can do about it.
Gassing, smoking, flooding, sonic posts, vibrating devices, broken glass, holly, mothballs, Jeyes Fluid, diesel fuel, poisoned worms and chewing gum will not stop him. Ian Dando, on the other hand, might.
Dando is a former accountant who ran way from maths to become a molecatcher in the Cotswolds. "I always wanted to work outside," says Dando, an avuncular figure in britches who has a ruddy complexion and ready laugh. "I hated working in an office. My grandfather had been a molecatcher and I learnt the skills from him as a young boy. I always knew it was a more interesting trade than accountancy."
Catching moles is a rare and ancient skill cloaked in mystery. The catcher is traditionally a solitary figure who was historically given free board and lodging in return for his mystical skills. (Moles are themselves wrapped in superstition. For example, a pair of the animal's front feet worn around the neck is supposed to prevent rheumatism. And a mole tunnel ringing a property is claimed to predict a death in the household.)
"Moles are incredible creatures who are very sensitive to any change in the environment," says Dando, displaying a labour the official collective noun for moles of the dead pests in the back of a pick-up truck that has "Molecatcher" written along its panels. "If you could lift up the turf where you know there are moles, it would look like Spaghetti Junction multiplied 10 times."
The national census of 1801 makes it clear that there were mole catchers working throughout Britain 200 years ago and that their customers ranged from large farms and estates to local parishes, who needed the moles removed from churchyards, and the rich, who wanted their gardens cleared of the creature. And it was a profitable business, as the molecatcher was paid not only for each mole that he trapped but also for the animal's pelts, which were used extensively for clothing.
Those who practised the trade tended to fall into the same esoteric category as horse whisperers and water-diviners. Nobody quite knew how they did it and no one is any the wiser today.
"I trap moles in a traditional way as opposed to trying to gas them or using a sonic device," says Dando, who is a member of the exclusive British Traditional Molecatchers Register (it has fewer than 50 members), which was formed last year and whose motto is: "We don't make a mountain out of a molehill."
"I prod the ground with a pole and when I find a mole run I dig up the turf. If it is a fresh run, I set a trap in the tunnel and replace the turf. Then I wait for a couple of days. You have to understand the mole. Once you do, then trapping him becomes clearer and easier."
Dando makes it sound simple, but it is a fine art to find the run and set the trap. He estimates that he catches more than 1,500 moles a year and, like his ancient predecessors, he is paid by the number of moles he catches. But even if he worked every hour of the day for seven days a week, he says, he would only make a tiny dent in the local population of moles.
"Since last autumn, we have seen an unusually high number of moles. Nobody knows why. The mole has no natural disease that might periodically wipe it out and it has no natural predators. You could say I am its only enemy. And I am pitting myself against what is a wild animal. It is exciting, although not much of a spectator sport, and you get to visit beautiful places and meet super people."
But, in this Wind in the Willows centenary year, Dando might wish to be circumspect about telling those of a child-like disposition too many details about his new rural career. And he might be advised to temporarily change the name on his truck to "Weasel Protection Officer".
Anyone who has ever tried to get rid of a mole from the garden may find it hard to believe but the species is feared to be on the wane.
Moles are notoriously hard to remove once they have infested a field or lawn, but a lack of the invertebrate species that they eat may be stopping them in their tracks.
Conservationists are concerned that this may be a sign of a deeper problem in Britain’s ecosystem so they have started a project to encourage the public to help to conduct a survey to establish where the animals can still be found. The best clues, of course, are molehills. The mounds of earth thrown up to the surface, often over manicured lawns, are the most visible sign of moles and are an ideal indicator of their presence.
By collecting sightings from all over the country the People’s Trust for Endangered Species hopes to build up a detailed map of where they can still be found.
Jill Nelson, the chief executive of the trust, recognises that to many gardeners and equestrians, whose horses can break their legs by stepping on molehills, moles are anathema but she defended the animals as an important part of the ecosystem.
“If moles are in trouble in an area it’s an indication that the things they are feeding on might be in trouble, which may in turn point to some trouble with the land. Ultimately, it will affect us,” she said.
“The only thing I can say for gardeners is, ‘If you have moles you obviously have very healthy land’. The fact your lawn has been dug up is perhaps unfortunate but at least it’s a healthy environment,” she added.
Moles can be a friend to gardeners because they eat pest species of insect larvae including leatherjackets, cockchafers and carrot flies.
Ms Nelson added: “Seeing a molehill is the only reliable means we have of recording the presence of moles. By gathering this information from surveyors across the UK we will be able to produce a distribution map of moles and judge whether there are areas where they are scarce.”
The MoleWatch survey runs until the end of the year and volunteers have already recorded 16,000 sightings of molehills. For details go to www.molewatch.org.uk.
— Moles live virtually all their lives underground. They come to the surface only in the breeding season to collect leaves for nests.
— They like earthworms and beetles. An adult eats almost two thirds of its body weight each day They create a network of tunnels into which invertebrates fall. The mole’s saliva paralyses earthworms so that they can be stored in specially constructed larders.
— There are 42 species worldwide. Up to 25 can live in 1 hectare.
— At the start of the 20th century more than 1 million moleskins were sold in London annually and 12 million were being sent to US to be used in breeches, waistcoats and ladies’ coats.
Source: PTES, Encyclopedia of Mammals, Times database.
In Germany, moles are a protected species. It is illegal to disturb them, let alone kill them. This does not seem to be a problem for German farmers. Why do British farmers always look for problems? I remember hearing 20 years ago that cereal farming would be impossible if stubble burning were banned. It was, but wheat and barley are still grown. Leave the moles alone: they don't hurt you.
near Cologne, Germany
One reader, plagued by moles, asked what advice could I give him to save his lawn. I have the ultimate defence in my own garden: a wall that goes all the way round. But I know from my father's garden that they can be awful and terribly difficult to get rid of.
In my part of the country, there is only one man to go to with this problem: former game keeper to Her Majesty the Queen, Bill Fenwick, who has continued mole catching into his retirement. He tells me that we should forget about mole smokes and ultrasonic spikes: 'They will put up two heaps next door to them'.
Moles are territorial and only get together to mate, so all those heaps are usually caused by just one mole. It is not unusual for one mole to put up 50 to 60 heaps and it can be as many as 100. If your aim is to scare them off to your neighbour's garden then you can try an outdoor disinfectant. Pick out the new heaps, take off the tops, find the holes and pour half an egg-cup full down each hole. If this does not work, then you are left with scissor traps (which are, of course, what Bill uses).
These can be purchased from good hardware stores.
Use a prodder to find the run six or eight inches away from a fresh heap.
Dig down into the run to place the trap and then make sure there is no light allowed back in to the run. Finally do not forget to bury the body.
On second thoughts, stick with the disinfectant.
Dr Jonathan Holliday is a GP in Windsor.
Use of the poison strychnine to kill moles will be banned from next September.
The Government announcement brought protests from landowners yesterday who said the poison was the only viable way of eliminating the pests in pastures.
Landowners said they were "shocked" to receive letters from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs saying that strychnine would be effectively outlawed by two EU directives on pesticides. Permits to use the poison, which is banned in other EU countries, would continue to be issued up to August 1 next year, but its use would be banned by September, said the letter.
Landowners say moles can be controlled in gardens by other means, but on a field scale, strychnine is an important tool.
A mole population explosion is wreaking havoc on lawns, golf links, racecourses and farms - and the animals are moving to previously uncolonised areas.
The outbreak was sparked by the foot-and-mouth epidemic two years ago, when mole catchers were banned from farms. A shortage of strychnine, the poison they use under licence, has only exacerbated the problem.
Moles also endanger racehorses and cattle, wreck farm machinery and damage flood defences. Richard Strand, executive director of the Pest Control Association, said he had had complaints nationwide about the population boom. Mole catchers have been inundated with calls but without poison they must resort to trapping, which is more costly. Many farms cannot afford it.
"There are more of them and they seem to be extending their area to where they havenít been seen before, such as ornamental gardens and parks," Mr Strand said. "We are approaching the main mole breeding season and it is the most effective time to control them. But we donít know when we are going to get more stocks of the poison - certainly not before September."
Jack Kent, from Nottingham, has caught moles for nearly 30 years and is amazed by the increase in their numbers. "Iíve never had that many before," he said. He added: "On race courses horses trip over their mounds; on farms the earth contaminates the silage, and stones and earth damage the mowing machines. Moles can also destroy flood protection. One hole in a flood bank and the pressure of water can rip it apart."
He charges about £80 to rid moles from a four-acre plot using poison, a minimum of £160 in London and the South East, and between £30 and £40 if a gamekeeper or farmer does the job. Using traps adds an extra £15 an hour because of the increased labour and travel time in laying traps and checking them every 48 hours.
Thornton and Ross, a pharmaceutical company in Huddersfield, is the only firm in Britain licensed to import and distribute strychnine. It scaled down orders from India during foot-and-mouth but stocks have run out and it has been unable to renew supplies.
Sir, I have a problem with moles in my garden. My local hardware store suggested that the best things to use are smoke bombs, but assured me that they're banned by the EU. I'd have to go to France to get some.
We have friends in France who confirmed their ready availability and kindly brought some over on a recent visit. The bombs are a whiz.
Could we please join the French EU? I'm sick of the British one.
Antony King-Deacon meets the man who smooths the lawns of Sandringham
THE last time a British monarch bestowed a mole-catcher with a royal warrant was in the 17th century, so Victor Williamson, who catches moles in the grounds and gardens of Sandringham in Norfolk, feels profoundly honoured. He received his warrant at the beginning of this year, and his white van now proudly displays the royal insignia "By Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Mole Controller".
Vic, as he prefers to be called, explains that the Queen has granted warrants to other pest controllers, "but I'm the only mole-catcher".
He is a youthful 64 years of age, tall, strongly built and very gentle. With people, that is. With moles, mice, rats, wasps, hornets and rabbits, he is ruthless and without mercy, although his methods are painlessly efficient.
"I never claim to rid a garden or parkland of moles. That isn't possible. All I can do is control them, keep their numbers down," he says. "When you've killed the male and female moles in a burrow, it will quickly be taken over by another pair. Or by a juvenile.
"There are only two ways to kill a mole, neither of which is available to the domestic gardener. They are traps, which we call 'nippers', and earthworms doused in strychnine, for which you need a licence," says Vic. "All the other so-called deterrents are a waste of time and money."
As if telling a rosary, he lists on his fingers some of the tomfoolery legal and otherwise that people resort to: "Elephant dung, creosote or Jeyes fluid rags, a hose attached to an exhaust pipe pushed into a tunnel with the engine running for 10 minutes, ultrasonic bleepers all utter nonsense, rubbish." He shrugs his shoulders, a smile on his kindly face.
He takes me with him on a job he has had for a day every fortnight for two years, in the gardens and extensive grounds of a large country house, not far from the north Norfolk coast. He will, he says, talk me through how he goes about killing (or "controlling") Mr and Mrs Mole.
It is a cold, wet and blustery February morning and, through a vista between the hilly woods, the sea is the colour of lead. From the back of his van Vic takes the two implements he uses an ancient "trapping spud", which resembles a very small hoe at the end of a long wooden pole, the hand-end of which is waxily marbled from years of use, and a stainless-steel dibber, a narrow length of metal with a spiked end.
Then he takes out the small brown chemist's medicine bottle of powdered strychnine and a black plastic plant pot of large earthworms. They writhe lethargically as though already half-dead. We then set off around the large Edwardian garden, with Vic carrying his deadly weapons. A gram of the poison will bait 200 worms (which Vic buys from "a supplier") and he uses 10 worms to an acre. Moles, Vic says, make at least 15 heaps of evacuated soil every day. A burrow can cover 20 square yards.
Near the ha-ha there is a fresh necklace of heaps, or molehills. Vic pushes his metal dibber all around a heap a foot or so from the ring. Suddenly the ground gives and he finds the tunnel. With the trapping spud he digs out a neat, small, square sod of grass. Then, wearing heavy rubber gloves and using a pair of large tweezers, he drops a poisoned earthworm into the hole and heels the sod back into place.
We move into the gardens from the open field. Here Vic changes his tactics, as he must at Sandringham when the Queen is in residence. The Tower would await him if a royal corgi were to be poisoned. There are also dogs in this household, so Vic sets his nipper traps. They provide, he assures me, a painless, instant end for the mole.
About us on the lawns is the evidence of Vic's successes. These scars, the flat areas of earth that were once mole-heaps before the traps or worms were set in place, signal the lack of moles. Now they can be sown with grass seed.
It begins to rain heavily and we make for the shelter of Vic's van. Urged to offer Gardening readers a glimmer of hope, a sure method they could use to rid their gardens of moles, Vic steadfastly refuses. He insists there are no other ways but his. You must have a licence to obtain strychnine. Steel traps are available at garden centres and nurseries, but they require skill and experience to set them efficiently and safely.
Isn't he simply trying to protect his own business? He thought not.
Then his face brightened. "But not many people do moles," he says, "so ask them to write to me and I'll try to help. 'Course I will."
Below the royal insignia on his van, referring to his wasp and hornet eradication service, is the slogan "We will not sting you". Nor, I believe, would he.
Vic gives talks and slide shows about his work for Rotary dinners, Women's Institutes and the like. His fees are donated to the Breast Cancer Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, Norfolk, where his mother died when she was in her early fifties. Such is his mission.
Note: We are sorry to announce that Vic Williamson died on 10 June 2009, at the age of seventy.
Sir Victor Williamson, the Queen's mole catcher, follows a long tradition [report, Jan. 31]. Francis Dyer was appointed "mole taker" to George III in 1766. His wages were £8 1s 8d a year.
The Queen has granted a Royal Warrant to the man who keeps the mole population of Sandringham under control.
Victor Williamson, who spends up to three days a week trying to trap or poison moles on the estate's 20,000 acres, is the first mole catcher to be honoured by the Queen.
Mr Williamson, 62, has worked on the Norfolk estate for 10 years and usually lays out poisoned worms. But when, as now, the Royal Family is in residence, he places metal traps in their tunnels because the worms might be eaten by the Queen's corgis.
"Getting a warrant from the Queen is a great honour and I am thrilled," said Mr Williamson, of Runcton Holme, near King's Lynn.
Christopher Pickup, secretary of the Royal Warrant Holders' Association, said: "The Queen has granted warrants to other pest controllers but this gentleman is the only one who catches moles."