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Even the most enthusiastic animal lover can find a mole hill on the lawn creates a real environmental dilemma says PETER FROST

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 does 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, 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 like black pyramids sprang up across the lawn. 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 America.

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

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 the Third 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 its own burrows from other moles. They come together only briefly to breed.

Almost blind it has remarkably acute hearing. Its front legs are sturdy and strong, ideal for digging. Its 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?

This article first published in the Morning Star, 2013

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