Wild Wychwoods

This spring we extended the patio behind the house by 10 feet, not anticipating the wildlife surprise that lay in store. We laid a six inch hardcore base, with paving stones above on a two inch cement bed. Small spaces were created sporadically to be planted with thyme, for the piquant aroma it emits when crushed underfoot. Imagine our surprise at finding a volcanic mound of earth rising through the patio. A mole had been busy! Drilling through hardcore and cement must have left it with a very sore nose. Incredibly sensitive to vibrations the mole must have divined the gap in the flagstones above.

moles02Male moles are known as ‘boars’, and females as ‘sows’. A group of moles is called a ‘labour’. There are estimated to be 31 million moles in the UK with a typical life span of 2½ years. The mole’s coat is dense, with short hair and no nap to rub against the tunnel walls. Historically their skins were prized for clothing. I remember as a boy subsidising my pocket money trapping and selling moleskins. Price depended on size and quality and ranged from four to six old pence [about 2p today]. In those days the price of three mole skins would buy a pint of bitter – you would hardly get a mouthful of beer today for 6p!

Moles are carnivores and their main food source is worms and invertebrates. Their tunnels are traps into which their prey falls. Sensitive to any vibration in the tunnel the mole is quickly there. Their saliva contains a toxin that paralyses earthworms, which are then stored in underground larders. Researchers have found as many as 1,000 worms in one of these subterranean pantries. With formidable front paws the mole is nature’s JCB and can tunnel 14 metres in an hour – over 24 hours in light soil one individual was observed to burrow a quarter of a mile.

In Wind in the Willows, Moley was a sociable fellow, but moles generally live isolated lives underground and will defend their tunnel systems aggressively. They are powerful swimmers, as fast as water voles. When the Evenlode is in flood, the meadow here, an island between the river and the mill leat, which is normally spattered with mole hills, goes under water and the residents have to swim through fast currents to escape to higher ground. When the water leaves the field, within days they are back and fresh molehills are witness to their safe return. Long may it be so!

Bystander

February – March 2019