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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

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.