Wilder Future: a mole's view

Photo credit, Steve Bottom

It’s a crisp, early spring morning of watery sun and rippling bird song. The April greens are at their sharpest, the leaves of every plant impossibly lush. The flowers pushing themselves up among the grasses and the beds have made every effort impress, and it shows. It’s all perfect, no words to express that feeling, I can only marvel. And then, looking out across the faintly glowing, dew-streaked lawn, an incongruous brown hillock forms, tumbling untidy muck over the yawning daisies. It’s all ruined...

...And sadly this is how many of us view the poor mole, despite his characterisation in Wind in the Willows as the honest, reliable, trustworthy team player, shy and lacking self confidence much of the time but never when it matters.  We typically damn little mole as no more than a pest, an intruder, a despoiler.  We have no time for his ugly earthworks and give him scant regard as we mow, pave, build, and tarmac.

What of the real mole? There are 39 species worldwide, and these are found in every continent except Antarctica and South America.  They come in a wide variety of sizes and colours, with some species large enough to prey on mice.  There are oddities, like the frankly unsettling looking star-nosed mole, a species that can detect and catch prey more quickly than the human eye can follow. There are semi-aquatic species too. 

But moles share some things in common.  They are loners.  Males (endearingly referred to as “boars”) and females (“sows”) come together for about an hour each year to mate, otherwise they actively avoid each other.  Mothers will raise four or so “pups”, which grow at a phenomenal rate due to the exceptional maternal care and leave home for good after a few weeks. Adults actively avoid each other and males can fight aggressively.

They have special adaptations – they have an extra thumb to assist with digging and their specially adapted blood means they can cope with the lower levels of oxygen underground.  Their velvety fur can be brushed in any direction, meaning that they are experts and reversing and manoeuvring in tight, subterranean spots.

And they are amazingly strong.  They can exert a sideways pressure 24 times their own body weight. If humans could do that, we’d be watching acrobatics juggling SUVs.  And they can shift earth like nothing else - it is estimates that if mole were the size of an average man, he would move 12 tonnes of soil in an hour.

Moles burrow to catch food, which is mainly earthworms, grubs and insects.  Contrary to what many claim, they don’t eat plants or bulbs.  They dig complex networks of tunnels that can extend to a kilometre long, crammed into a territory 40 metres across.  All this work gives them voracious appetites.  An average mole will guzzle half its own bodyweight in a day.

Mole is the only one of Kenneth Grahame’s four main characters whose future is not under imminent threat in the UK, and who receives no protection in law.  But of the four, we have almost certainly treated him the worst.  If you look online you can find a bewildering variety of techniques to rid yourself of this luckless beast – gassing, trapping, poisoning, repelling.  Astonishingly, the use of strychnine to kill moles was only banned in 2006.  Sadly, this mistreatment has been going on for much of history.  Moles had an important place in folklore medicine, and some of the uses they were put to are truly hair raising.  Among the less gruesome are cutting off the wretched animal’s hands and keeping them as a way to ward off ailments and drinking its fresh blood.  As recently as 200 years ago many people believed that if you held a live mole until it died your hands would acquire healing powers.

Tidiness is increasingly ubiquitous. We see it in the thin, neatly flailed hedges, the highly fertilised fields with a single crop and no margin, in the closely mown public parks and the road verges strimmed of their wildflowers. Tidiness is overrated though, and it’s very often the enemy of wildlife.
Ratty and Mole

Of course there’s little or no evidence that these “cures” had any substance. But mole is a far more valuable creature than we give him credit for. His digging aerates and drains the soil, mixing it up and increasing its fertility.  Mole hills can break up monotonous swards dominated by a few competitive grasses, making room for wildflowers and other species to get a foothold.  And while their tunnelling can damage roots, they eat huge volumes of insects and grubs which would otherwise do considerable damage to crops or the plants lovingly tended by gardeners.  Moles are good news.

So why have we treated moles so wantonly?  True, their actions can sometimes be troublesome.  Perhaps their subterranean, secretive behaviour makes us suspicious at some deep level.  But in recent times at least I believe their real crime has been to upset our tidy world of straight lines, flat surfaces and clean looking lawns.  And for this crime we have killed them in their millions.

Tidiness is increasingly ubiquitous.  We see it in the thin, neatly flailed hedges, the highly fertilised fields with a single crop and no margin, in the closely mown public parks and the road verges strimmed of their wildflowers.  Tidiness is overrated though, and it’s very often the enemy of wildlife.   What refuges do these ordered, rectilinear places leave for animals to hide, shelter or feed? The removal of scrubby patches from the landscape is one of the main reasons for the disappearance of our most melodic songbird, the nightingale.  Look on any website about wildlife gardening, and one of the top tips is to be less tidy – mow less, stop clearing up, leave nettles and dandelions alone, create more compost heaps and log piles. If we want wildlife, we need to make room for some mess too.

Despite our efforts, moles are very numerous – at 31 million in Britain they vastly out number toads, water voles or badgers. Moles are resilient, and that’s just as well because all our gardens, parks and meadows would be a lot poorer without them. So here’s to mole, fiercely independent, tunneller supremo and nemesis of all things neat and tidy!  He reminds us to relax, stop seeking order and control, to give the wild a bit of space to be itself.  I’m glad you made your presence felt on my spring lawn.


Join us in our campaign for a Wilder Future for Mole and us all.