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10 September 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 1:17pm

Digging for victory: in praise of the mole

Moles are harmless inhabitants of the British landscape but are much persecuted by man.

By John Burnside

I remember being shown, as a boy of seven, a mole trap by a “friendly” neighbour, who explained with great care how the mechanism worked. He then gleefully claimed that although the trap was designed to kill its intended victim instantly, it often missed its mark and merely held the poor creature in situ until, sometimes quite slowly, it was squeezed to death. (Why is it, I wonder, that middle-aged men of a certain type delight in introducing children to the uglier side of life?)

His specimen was one of the older contraptions, used by people who, according to some mist-swaddled, inexplicable tradition, would suspend their victims in the branches of trees, or pin them to stiles and fence posts, just as rats and crows often were – even though, in this case, the purpose could hardly have been to serve as a warning to others, as moles almost never venture above ground, preferring the safety of their subterranean fortresses of damp, rich soil.

Sometimes I came across a row of them, little pockets of velvet with clenched eyes. I would become not only sad and a little frightened, but also puzzled by this strange war on a creature that I knew – like fish blood and bone, or horse manure, which I would be sent out to collect with a spade whenever the milk cart arrived at the end of our lane – was “good for the soil”.

I knew this, probably, because I had read as much in one of the handful of faded natural history books at our local library. For instance, the great Victorian naturalist Rev J G Wood, in his admirable Common Objects of the Country, wrote of the mole’s role in soil ecology:

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[The] earth is brought from below, where it was useless, and, with all its properties inexhausted by crops, is laid on the surface . . . And by the united exertions of moles and worms a new surface is made to the earth, even without the intervention of human labour.

In short, moles are nature’s double diggers – and perhaps, as that tongue-in-cheek closing sentence suggests, they are far better custodians of the land than their human counterparts.

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However, the reverend notes, mole populations sometimes increase “to an inconvenient extent”, causing damage to the properties of those old-fashioned (and in my view rather dull-minded) gardeners who think that a lawn is something worth maintaining, as well as occasional contamination of silage on cattle farms.

This is when battle lines are drawn. Many an old-school gardener, at the first hint of mole activity, goes into battle with all the passion of a suburban Bismarck (the products available include traps, electronic devices and smoke repellents, though the use of strychnine has been banned since 2006).

All this, even though the mole man will tell you that killing a few animals in your backyard simply creates open territory for new and possibly heavier “infestations”. Farmers want to protect their fodder supplies and some control may be justified, but all-out war is not. (Incidentally, moles are a protected species in Germany, where a landowner needs a permit to kill them and specific reasons for doing so.)

The benefits to soil ecosystems are so clear that killing moles is rather like killing earthworms, or bees. This is especially true in the garden – though it is not easy to make such an argument, here, because of the sacred status of the lawn.

What, in the end, is a lawn? It is difficult not to agree with the American writer and activist Michael Pollan, who declared: “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.” The lawn is also greedy for water, useless to bees, often saturated with fungicides, pesticides and herbicides and, worst of all, is hopelessly monotonous, unless it contains a fresh, earthy molehill to give it context.

This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers