Mag­i­cal crea­tures


The Simple Things - - FRESH - Words: ROB ATKIN­SON

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).

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