The euromole crisis

Image of Robin Lane Fox

The last of the roses are hanging their heads in the rain. The last of the dahlias have become sodden. The ground has softened and down on the route to my rubbish heap there are three brown heaps of trouble. They have been thrown up by the true sapper of Europe, not bonds or bureaucrats but Talpa europaea, the European mole.

Forget those cosy images of Mole End, that home sweet home in which Kenneth Grahame’s Mole kept classical statuary and his busts of Garibaldi and Queen Victoria. Molehills are a gardener’s nightmare. They are even more of a nightmare for those who play tennis on their lawn or have just laid out a course for nine holes of golf. How can we control the “gentlemen in brown velvet” now that strychnine is technically banned? In 2004 the British Government commissioned A Review Of Methods Used Within The European Union To Control The European Mole. What wondrous Euro-rubbish we pay for without being asked. The report concluded that mole traps should be used only 20 times before being replaced.

I have been conducting my personal review instead. In Germany moles are protected and can only be killed under licence. The ruling has encouraged a brisk trade in imported traps from Switzerland. The Swissino “SuperCat” trap is considered to be particularly efficient. In France gardeners are encouraged to shoot. They can buy a small gun with instructions on how to aim it down a tunnel at an approaching Monsieur Taupe and then pull the trigger and hit him in the face. It must take years of practice. Moles have famously sharp hearing and at the first hint of an intruder they dig in the opposite direction. In Italy and Belgium the alternative is a “mole blaster”. This explosive device is poked into the mole’s tunnel and set off by a charge from an electric battery when an approaching mole detonates it. It sounds like overkill to me.

In Britain I revere the recent classic, Mole Catching: A Practical Guide, based on a lifetime’s experience and written in 2008 by the professional mole catcher Jeff Nicholls. He reports that there are 33 million moles underground in Britain alone. The officials behind this statistic cannot possibly have counted them but they stop me feeling too sorry for the few dirty diggers who come and ruin my flowerbeds. In Nicholls’ view, “the mole lives a solitary life of between three and five years in a territory that it will defend with its life.” It sounds like the temporary lecturers who do ever more of the teaching in British universities. Unlike those lecturers a mole has 44 teeth and mates only in spring.

As a skilled professional, Nicholls trusts in traps and advises in detail on how to set them. His advice is essential reading, but is it considered to be best practice in other countries? At a recent flower show near Paris I located a parallel authority, young Jérôme Dormion. He is author of a parallel text, Le Piégeage Traditionnel des Taupes. He is also the professional molecatcher at Versailles.

Like Nicholls, Dormion has an engaging respect for the animal he is paid to control. He even poses a thoroughly French question: “La cohabitation, est-elle possible?” Regretfully he concludes that it is not. He explains that a French mole lives in a “gîte”. He then reviews the produits anti-taupes on the French market and shares Nicholls’ conclusion. Expertly set traps are the answer. He shows how to set them with drawings which I find even more helpful than Nicholls’ detailed advice.

Here are some important observations. It is misplaced kindness, Nicholls stresses, to take a mole from a trap and release it at random in open country away from a garden. The region is probably unsuited to a mole’s requirements and it will die bewildered. Better to set a trap and in the rare event that the mole is found alive in it, it can be dispatched with a traditional British bash on the head, given by the back of a trowel. Moles are surprisingly small despite all the damage they throw up.

Both professionals regard gassing as particularly objectionable. In France le gazage au PH3 is practised by 90 per cent of practising taupiers but Dormion is wholly opposed to it. It requires a licence. It uses phosphorous-based compounds and is bad for the environment. It kills all the other organisms in the soil. It works only in damp conditions and not in dry soils. The cull, if any, is never known because the gas kills, if at all, far down the tunnel and the victims are never verified. Nicholls agrees.

Dormion grades the efficiency, price and ecological value of the main prescriptions which property-owners use. I can only endorse his low view of the “green” answer, plants of the Caper Spurge, or Euphorbia lathyris. It never deters my Cotswold moles and its juice is dangerous to human skin. He has no more time for granules based on sulphur and ethanol, which are supposed to distress a mole’s sense of smell and send him off elsewhere.

In big gardens they are obviously useless. Underground vibrators are slightly better but they only work over small distances and only deter a mole’s approach until he is accustomed to them. Chlorobenzene-based granules make a vile smell underground but the mole soon digs a fresh tunnel away from them. Explosives and cartridges are expensive and only moderately efficient. Poisons based on alpha-chlorolose are much more effective but only in spring and summer. They are also unavailable to amateurs.

So we come back to traps. Both Nicholls and Dormion tell us how to set them and I am still working out if the French modèle Putange is the same as the British pincher. The market in mole traps is dominated by stock made in China and India with a significant contribution from Pakistan. The basic innovations, however, are all western, from the Scottish barrel-trap to the American Eliminator and the fearsome harpoon. I have bought five pincer-traps from Dormion and have farmed them out to mole-sufferers. My first attempt to set one was not a success.

Never mind if the mechanism is obstinate. There are still a few professionals out there and the Nicholls-Dormion strike-rate is extremely impressive. I am watching the next move of my three molehills, texts in hand.

Even if your family claims to be “green”, I bet you they will melt if they receive a moleskin waistcoat, trapped for them by a personal expert in time for Christmas.

Jeff Nicholls, ‘Mole Catching: A Practical Guide’ (Crowood Press, £14.99)

Jérôme Dormion, ‘Le Piégeage Traditionnel des Taupes’ (Ulmer, €9.90)

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