Dark Doings: The secret life of an enigmatic pest

A boom in the UK's mole population has been causing widespread alarm. Michael McCarthy reflects on a subterranean mystery

A A A

Funny how some animals exert a powerful fascination over us, even though their impact upon our lives may be incidental or even non-existent. Such is clearly the case with the mole, which has featured strongly in the media in the past week, after reports that mole numbers are soaring as a result of the ban on strychnine as a mole poison.

It's as if all we needed was an excuse to talk about the little fellow, and we couldn't stop; and reading the various accounts it struck me that there was something primally absorbing about this small insectivore, which most people never set eyes on.

Partly, of course, it was the references to mole-catchers, now increasingly in demand as expanding numbers of moles seem to be throwing up their unkempt molehills across ever more pristine lawns. The fact that mole-catchers still exist (and indeed, are organised in the British Traditonal Molecatchers' Register (call-outs to whose members have trebled in the past two years) leaves us at once delighted and incredulous, as if a curtain is being lifted on a corner of life which seems far too comical to have a real existence. There cannot be many modern occupations which seem more like a satirical invention, a throwback to a music-hall vision of a countryside full of yokels wearing moleskin trousers making corn dollies, or even a Mozart opera vision of what rural life is like – "Enter Popo the Mole-catcher, carrying a spade."

Yet there is something more basic, it seems to me, about our fascination with Talpa europea. I first got a feel for it many years ago when I read, and was much taken with, a short poem by Andrew Young, the Scottish-born clergyman who was one of the "Georgian" nature poets at the start of the 20th century, but went on to develop a more independent style (and also to become a captivating prose writer on the natural world – next time you're in a second-hand bookshop, scour the shelves for his A Prospect of Flowers, 1944).

The poem is called simply: "To A Dead Mole". Coming across a diminutive mole corpse, Young addresses himself to it, realising what a full and vivid life the animal had led beneath the ground, not only digging, but fighting and loving, hunting and feeding, and makes the point that for the mole to make the mound of a molehill, was the mole equivalent of a human digging a hole. And then he says:

What wonder now that being dead

Your body lies here stout and square

Buried within the blue vault of the air?

I sat up with a start when I first read that. It was like suddenly seeing part of the world in a completely different way, and shows what's at the heart of our mole-fascination: in living out their lives underground, they invert the natural order of things. "Underground" has long been a place of nightmares, in our imagination the domain of beasts that will emerge from the depths and drag us back down with them; but as moles are not threatening, or at worst, a bit of a pest, instead of dread they trigger our wonder with their upside-down lives, lived out almost entirely in the dark.

It has taken a long time for biologists to unravel these lives, but much is now understood and much of it is bizarrely captivating. Most of us know the mole basics – they have tiny, almost invisible eyes, but powerful, clawed, spade-like forefeet which they use for digging like the buckets of a JCB, and they have short velvety fur (although many people may be surprised at how small the whole animal is – at about five inches long, it's little bigger than a mouse.)

But the intimate details of the mole's subterranean home life, which have gradually been pieced together, are much less known. For example, down in their tunnels, moles sleep upright, with their heads between their forelegs. Although they are primarily burrowers, they are also good swimmers, and if flooded out, will simply swim off. When they are scared, they can scream.

They feed very largely on earthworms, many of which fall into their tunnels from above, and moles will paralyse but not kill large numbers of worms by biting them just behind the head. They then store them in underground "larders" as fresh food, the largest such cache ever found containing1200 worms, which weighed four-and-a-half pounds.

When a mole eats a worm, it first runs it through its feet, in the manner of a man climbing a rope, to squeeze the surplus soil and dirt out of the worm's insides. Moles also eat centipedes, and slugs, and beetle larvae, and there are vivid accounts too of them chasing and catching frogs – like hedgehogs, they can move much quicker than you might imagine.

How male moles get it together with female moles is less understood, but copulation has been observed on the surface, with one mounting the other in the manner of dogs. Even for a mole, passion in a tunnel may be a bit constricted. Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of mole behaviour is how aggressive the males are towards each other. This is vividly described in the only modern monograph on the European species (or at least, the only one which I am aware of), Kenneth Mellanby's The Mole , published in the Collins New Naturalist series in 1971. (It's another volume for which you'll have to scour the second-hand bookshops).

Mellanby opens his chapter on territorial behaviour with a narrative that might have come from Jacobean revenge tragedy (the exclamation mark is his): "Moles hate their own species! If two are confined together in the same cage, they will fight to the death. If a newly killed mole is dropped into a box containing a live one, the reaction is sometimes startling. Had a worm or a piece of meat been so introduced, it would probably have been approached with some caution, and been dragged off to be eaten. But the dead mole may be attacked immediately with a frenzied outburst of what appears to the observer to the most violent hatred. The corpse is lacerated and may be, cannibalistically, eaten ..."

And so it goes on. On the surface, we only see those pesky molehills on the lawn, but down in the burrow-world, life is full of drama, of hunting and loving, of fighting and dying, of struggling for survival. No wonder we want to talk about them.

How to get rid of Moles

The brutal method

Spring traps are reasonably effective if you have enough, set them properly (making sure they're camouflaged with earth and don't carry your scent) and don't mind the task of emptying them.

The barrier method

A covered trench filled with gravel – about 1ft wide and 2-3ft deep – should keep moles out of the area you wish to protect. It's no good if they've moved in.

The bottle method

Take a few empty bottles and insert, upright, at strategic points in the mole tunnels. The bottom of each bottle should be in the tunnel with the top sticking out. When the wind blows, the vibrations are transmitted, causing the distressed occupants to move on.

The birthday card method

Musical gift cards work on the same principle as the empty bottles, but it's rarely as effective and much more expensive. Wedge them open and bury them (or at least the musical part) in the tunnels.

The gas method

Some professional pest-controllers asphyxiate moles using gas pellets based on aluminium phosphide. Ordinary gardeners find this idea distasteful; others have been known to use mothballs as an improvised alternative.

The toy windmill method

Another variant on the bottle method; reputedly less effective.

The "Biblical Flood" method

Insert a hose in the tunnel, turn on tap, come back several hours (or days) later. Easy, messy, inhumane, but it works.

The Castor oil method

Pour it into the tunnel network at various points. The moles move on.

The weasel method

Insert weasel droppings in tunnel. Devastatingly effective. Drawback: finding the droppings (or indeed the weasel).

The natural predator method

Keeping a cat works. Drawback: regular indoor "gifts" of half-dead moles.

The sniper method

Keep watch over a mole tunnel with your 12-bore until you detect a movement. Only recommended for hardcore gamekeepers and pest controllers.

The "French Solution"

Dynamiting mole tunnels is messy and illegal, but popular across the Channel.

The poisoned chalice method

Poison is unkind to moles and the environment. The mole-catcher's poison, strychnine, has been illegal since 2006.

Suggested Topics
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little