AN APPRECIATION OF THE MOLE
Autumn is here and, after months of drought, the moles are settling back into their routine. They’ve had a hard time of it this year. During the desiccating summer months, moles struggled to dig tunnels through baked and unyielding ground, and subsisted on dry, unappetising fare – small creatures that fell through cracks in the parched soil. Moles eat most invertebrates but earthworms are what they want most. A mole needs to eat half its bodyweight in food each day, but it takes just six large water- and nutrient-rich worms to satisfy its metabolism and thirst. As the drought continued, the worms retreated deep into moister soil.
A lucky mole found the bank of the stream that flows by my house, and rampantly threw up molehills along the wet water margin, easily digging through the soft soil. It has settled there now, and sometimes I sit and watch for it. A small patch of ground at my feet moves. Earthworms erupt from the soil, as if fleeing some underground terror.
Through a gap in the grass, I spot a tiny snout, probing and sniffing, followed by a small, black-furred head. The mole is just under the surface, ripping through the turf, focussed entirely on finding food. It relies on smell and on the touch of wriggling, invertebrate prey transmitted through the sensory hairs on its face.
The mole’s shoulders are so powerful that they can exert a sideways pressure 24 times its own bodyweight – equivalent to a human pushing nearly two tonnes. The strong, flexible spine allows the mole to instantly turn around in a tunnel only millimetres wider than its body. Its upright, sensitive tail helps it quickly reverse. It has broad, spade-like hands armed with thick, earth-scraping nails and a fringe of stiff hairs to sweep soil.
Now, in October, young moles have been on their own for six months. Some stumbled into the abandoned tunnels of dead adults, but the rest must dig their own and they have months of work ahead. It takes about an hour to dig one metre and, having dug the soil, moles have to push it onto the surface via near-vertical shafts. The soil in even a short 15cm shaft weighs three times as much as the mole does, and the mole lifts against the resistance of the shaft’s walls and with one hand. Moles can lift around 2kg – 20 times their own bodyweight. By winter they’ve finished building their home – a network of tunnels over a kilometre long, packed like spaghetti into a territory only 30–40 metres across.
Of course, the consequence of all that digging is maddening molehills. But surely the mighty, mysterious and resilient animal that made them deserves our respect and, as often as we can offer it, our tolerance?
Rob Atkinson is the author of Moles: The British Natural History Collection (Whittet Books).