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Moles and Molecatchers

Humane Mole Control

It is often the gardener who does more damage to his (or her) garden than the mole. Sometimes he will flatten the molehills with the back of a spade and create unsightly bare patches of soil.

However if he scoops up each molehill soon after it appears, with the spade, he will find that most of the grass underneath is intact. If some of the turf has been pushed up, it can be pushed back down. If there is a small hole through which the soil has been pushed up, this can be filled with a little soil that will soon grass over.

The molehills are created when the mole is digging tunnels, and he (or she) is digging the tunnels for earthworms to enter. They are his main source of food. When he has dug enough tunnels to provide him with sufficient food, he should stop digging tunnels and creating molehills. For most of the time, the gardener will be unaware of the mole's existence.

Occasionally the mole might need to repair a tunnel and push up another molehill, but it will not take long for the gardener to scoop up the molehill and reveal the grass underneath.

If the gardener flattens the molehills with a spade, or inserts sticks or traps into the molehills or the tunnels, he will damage the tunnels. The mole will have to dig more tunnels to repair or replace them, and so create more molehills. A vicious circle develops.

If the mole is caught in a trap, the tunnel system will remain, and it is likely that it will be found by another mole who will use it as his own. The gardener is back where he started.

Dr Kenneth Mellanby CBE (19081993) advocated the method of learning to live with the mole in his book 'The Mole', published by William Collins in 1971. Dr Mellanby was an ecologist and entomologist, and the first Director of Monks Wood Experimental Station, near Huntingdon.

Dr Mellanby says in his book that if the soil is rich in earthworms, a large enough system of runs to collect food will soon be constructed, and then the production of molehills will, at least temporarily, cease. Some individuals, he says, are fortunate enough to find an unoccupied burrow in their youth and may never need to do any more digging than to repair and maintain the system. He adds that in clay soils a settled population is often there without the householder knowing.

Photograph of Mole © Copyright David Cole
© Copyright David Cole
and published with his permission
click to enlarge
Photograph of Mole
from 'Molecatcher' by Jeff Nicholls
and published with his permission
Photograph of Mowdy Jack
Mowdy Jack
photograph taken late 19th Century

The Dumville Molecatchers
The Skills of the Mole
The Damage
Catching Moles
Humane Mole Control
Modern Day Molecatchers
Different Types of Mole
Royalty and Moles
Mole Superstitions
Further Reading
Children's Books

Moles and Molecatchers Guest Book

The Dumville Molecatchers

Our Grand Old Molecatcher, Robert Dumville, headed quite a clan of molecatchers!

son Thomas (1807-1893): mole-killer (Fearby 1851 and 1861 censuses), mole catcher (Fearby 1871 and 1881 censuses)
son James (1824-1887): mole catcher (Hunton 1851, 1861, 1881 censuses), mole catcher (1855, 1856 and 1877 birth certificates)
son Charles (1826-1885): molecatcher (Exelby 1881 census), and although he died in 1885, Bulmer's 'History and Directory of North Yorkshire' for 1890 lists him under Exelby, as mole catcher
grandson Joseph (1865-1937, son of James): molecatcher (Hunton 1891 census)
grandson George (born 1848), son of Charles: molecatcher (Aldfield 1881 census)

Apparently the nineteenth-century village molecatcher could be quite a character. I wonder if any of our Dumvilles looked like Jack Scott of Bellerby, Wensleydale, Yorkshire? (see photograph) He was known as 'Mowdy Jack'.

The earliest mention we have of our own chief molecatcher is in 1821:

'In 1821 wages of 13 shillings were paid to Dumville for Molecatching.'
Geoff van Leeuwen found this in a book going for auction: the Accounts and Memorandum Book of John Brownless of Exelby, Bedale, Yorkshire. 146 pages of accounts for the period 1816 to 1894.
(source: Geoff's Mole and Mole Catching Web Page)

At one time molecatchers could also make money from selling moleskins. At the peak of the trade America was importing over four million moleskins a year from England. It took over one hundred good pelts to make both front parts of a waistcoat. The skins were also made into coats, trousers and hats.

The Skills of the Mole

To writers of children's books, moles are cute. Why did our Dumville ancestors want to catch and kill them? Alas their skills are their undoing. Moles have extremely broad and powerful front feet, which are used as shovels and are equipped with large digging claws. A tiny mole weighing only around four ounces and about six inches long can shift ten pounds of earth in only twenty minutes, as he creates his network of underground tunnels and throws up molehills along the way. This is the equivalent of a twelve-stone miner moving four tons in twenty minutes. (Though apparently a miner at the coalface does not in fact move more than one ton per hour.)

The mole's eyes are only one millimetre in diameter and protected by fur to keep out the soil, but moles have acute hearing, and highly sensitive noses and tails. They feed on the earthworms and insects they find in their tunnels and in the earth, and they consume about half their own weight daily, so have to keep busy. A single mole can dig about twenty yards (eighteen metres) of tunnel in a day.

The Damage

All this activity wreaks havoc on lawns, golf links, racecourses and farms. Molehills can trip up valuable racehorses and cattle; tunnelling can damage crops, and stones thrown up by the moles can wreck farm machinery. In England's Fenlands the moles have to be prevented from tunnelling into the banks of the hundreds of fenland waterways. One hole in a flood bank and the water pressure can rip it apart creating disastrous floods.

Catching Moles

Moles are mostly solitary creatures, and, except during the breeding season, they are highly aggressive to other moles of either sex. Each mole has its own set of tunnels. They are active day and night (apart from periodic rest periods) and they don't hibernate.

Moles are mostly caught by putting traps in their runs. If you don't have a local molecatcher, you can buy traps at some garden centres. The half-barrel trap seems to be the most effective and humane.

Another method once used by some molecatchers was to feed worms mixed with the poison strychnine to the moles, but the use of strychnine for mole control was banned on 31st August 2006. Strychnine causes a cruel and painful death. The mole suffers a fierce convulsion and dies by haemorrhages in the lungs leading to asphyxia. The strychnine can also poison birds and other animals.

In 2003 there was a shortage of the poison but also a mole population explosion, because molecatchers had been banned from farms during the foot-and-mouth epidemic two years before. For more about the crisis see 'Mole Numbers Soar as Poison Runs Out'.

Here are some other suggestions for trying to get rid of moles:

Humane Mole Control

Scoop up each molehill soon after it appears, with a spade. When the mole has dug enough tunnels to provide him with sufficient food, mainly in the form of earthworms, he should stop digging tunnels and pushing up molehills, for a while at least. If another molehill appears, it will not take long to scoop it up and reveal the grass underneath (see the article at the top of this page).

Modern Day Molecatchers

Jeff Nicholls is one of the few remaining professional molecatchers in twenty-first century Britain. He uses metal traps designed to kill the mole instantly and humanely when it hunts in its tunnel for worms. For more about Jeff and his fascinating guide to traditional molecatching methods see his book 'Molecatcher' (Matador, 2004).

'It is a pity that such a lovely creature can cause havoc in gardens and create problems in agriculture', says another twenty-first century molecatcher, Brian Alderton. Whereas Jeff Nicholls works mainly in the south of England, Brian deals with the mole's havoc further north. Dealing with the mole's havoc takes Brian and his two molecatching sons, Scott and Stephen, all over north Yorkshire, from country estates and farms to horse paddocks and small back gardens.

Twentieth century molecatcher Arthur Randell wrote about his own clan of molecatchers in 'Fenland Molecatcher' (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970). His was the fourth generation of molecatchers in his family - and at six years old his young grandson already showed signs of adding another generation!

Besides describing the habits and cunning of the moles themselves, Arthur Randell's book goes into detail about the skills needed by the molecatcher, the various trapping methods, and how the old-fashioned traps were made and set. Everything was carefully crafted from willow, elder and ash wood, plus wire and cord. For a day's molecatching he would set out with ten or twelve traps, masses of 'mole sticks', thirty to forty pegs, a small slash hook and a 'spud' - a tool with steel point at one end and a steel spade blade at the other. The spud was used for cutting down into mole runs and making holes in the soil.

Walter Rutherford was a molecatcher in the Allendales, Northumberland, who once caught 10,000 moles in thirty months. He preferred traps. He tried strychnine, but apart from the harm this does to other animals and birds, he found that it didn't keep the moles down. There was also no way of showing the molecatcher's successes! After trapping, Walter would hang all his dead moles by the nose on the edge of the field, or on a fence or a boundary wall. His longest ever line consisted of 487 moles, all caught on one farm near Catton village! (source: The Guardian 30 April 1983)

Different Types of Mole

Talpia europaea is the common European mole. Gold coloured moles (Chrysochloridae) live in southern Africa, and scuttle along just below the surface of the golden desert sand. In Australia there are burrowing marsupials called marsupial moles.

The strangest-looking mole lives in north-eastern North America: the star-nosed mole (Condylure christata) which looks as if it has a sort of star fish instead of a nose. It's a good diver and apparently uses the ring of fleshy 'star points' to pick up sounds under water. It has the fastest known reaction time in the animal kingdom. From the moment it touches insect larva with its 'nose' to gulping it down takes much less than half the 650 milliseconds that a human driver needs to brake for a red light. Studying this incredible mole is helping research into brain function in animals, as the Times reported, in February 2005 (see 'The Star-Nosed Mole').

Royalty and Moles

The mole was toasted by the Jacobites as the 'little gentleman in black velvet', because he brought about the death of their enemy, King William of England (1689-1702). In February 1702 William was riding at Hampton Court when his horse stumbled on a mole hill, and threw him, breaking his collar bone. However he insisted on returning to Kensington Palace which aggravated his condition. A few days later he became feverish and then died on 8 March 1702.

Today, Queen Elizabeth II has her own 'Mole Controller', Mr Victor Williamson, who has the royal warrant for his molecatching services on the Queen's estate in Sandringham, Norfolk. He doesn't use poison but prefers traps.

Mole Superstitions

The feet of the mole, carried in the pocket, are said to be a charm against cramp. The forefeet cure aching arms; the rear are supposed to do the same for aching legs. Moles' feet are also a traditional anti-rheumatism and anti-toothache remedy, and moles' blood dispels warts.

Further Reading

The Life of the Mole, by Gillian Godfrey and Peter Crowcroft, published by Museum Press Limited, 1960

Fenland Molecatcher, by Arthur Randell, published by Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited, 1970

The Mole, by Kenneth Mellanby, published by Collins, 1971 (Dr Mellanby was the founder and first director of Monks Wood Experimental Station, near Huntingdon.)

Moles, by David Stone in The Mammal Society series, first published 1986 by Anthony Nelson Limited, Oswestry

The Natural History of Moles, by Martyn L. Gorman and R. David Stone, published by Christopher Helm (Publishers) Limited, 1990

The Mole, by R. David Stone, published by Shire Publications Limited, 1992

Children's Books

Talpa - The Story of a Mole, by Kenneth Mellanby, published by Collins, 1976 (Talpa is the Latin word for a mole)

Wind in the Willows, the great favourite, by Kenneth Grahame

The Mole Family's Christmas, by Russell Hoban, 1973, published by Jonathan Cape

M.O.L.E. Much Overworked Little Earthmover, by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski, published by Cape

Mouse and Mole, by Joyce Dunbar, 1994

Mr Squint, by Jenny Partridge, 1980, published by Worlds Work

Meet Digger, a finger puppet book to read and colour, by Jane Hurst and Joan Coombs, 1981, published by Follow Your Finger Books, Radlett, Hertfordshire

Molly in Danger, by Anne Carter, 1987, published by Sainsbury's Walker Books

Mole, by Luis Murschetz, 1973, published by Methuen Children's Books

See also:

Moles and Molecatchers Guest Book

Brian Alderton, Molecatcher

Jeff Nicholls, Molecatcher

Living with Moles

Mole Patrol

Cuttings and Clippings

The Star-Nosed Mole

Albino Moles