The Mole Talpa europaea is one of our most recognisable mammals, not often seen above ground but distinctive when it is encountered. It has unmistakable broad, spade-shaped forelimbs which are pink as is the snout. It has short dense fur with a velvety texture which has no lie and therefore is unaffected by the Mole moving forwards or backwards through its tunnel system. Moles have very small eyes which are almost hidden within the fur and they tend to carry their short tails erect. Old names for the Mole include moldwarp, want and taupe. Moldwarp is Anglo-Saxon in origin: molde is from soil and weorpan to throw or turn up.
The most distinctive feature of the Mole’s lifestyle is the molehill, the conical spoil heap formed when a Mole is excavating permanent tunnels. The soil is pushed up into a hill through a vertical or sloping tunnel from below; there is no opening in the molehill to the surface.
Moles have many benefits: they create tunnels which turn over the soil and help to aerate it, which can improve drainage; they also eat invertebrate pests. Moles feed predominantly on earthworms but insect larva are also important at different times of the year. Earthworms are the main food in winter but only make up around 50% of the diet in summer. Food is found by foraging along the tunnel system, taking prey that is within the tunnels or in the tunnel walls.
A local conservation benefit was seen at Haughton Castle, Northumberland, where Alchemilla micans, a rare member of the lady’s mantle family, has been found growing directly on top of molehills in old pasture land. Moles are thought to have brought seeds to the surface that have lain dormant for many years and the soil of the molehills has proven an ideal site for the plants to germinate. This discovery, made in 2010, is only the second site in the UK where this plant is known to grow (The Journal, 5 October 2010).
One unexpected benefit of molehills made the news recently. At Whitley Castle in west Northumberland, Moles burrowing in the old Roman site of Epiacum have brought artefacts to the surface with the soil. The site is a scheduled ancient monument and no digging or excavation is permitted, but the Moles have brought several finds to the surface, including a piece of Samian ware pottery and a jet bead (The Journal, 21 April 2012).
Moles are regarded as agricultural pests. Molehills can provide ideal conditions for invasive plants to establish, the soil from the molehills can get caught in farm machinery and Moles are still removed from hay meadows as the soil thrown up in molehills can contaminate hay and silage causing listeria in over-wintering livestock fed on the affected bales. They can also damage crops with their underground runs, and molehills are not welcome on golf courses and lawns. Dead Moles are often seen hung on wire fences, or on murder rails, once they have been removed from farmland, especially from hay fields. Displaying dead Moles in this way allows for an accurate record of Moles killed. Mole catchers tend to be paid per Mole and in this way both parties know the true number killed. The profession of Mole catcher is an old one, dating back to the time of early parish enclosures (Lovegrove, 2007). The profession still exists today and an advert for a Mole catcher was seen recently in Longhorsley. Very few parish records record the numbers of Moles killed and these are not a full reflection of the numbers taken, as many Moles will also have been caught on private estates and paid for by land owners. However, the practice of removing Moles from a small area is ineffective, as when a resident Mole is removed, the territory will be taken over by neighbouring Moles, sometimes within a few hours.
Moles build a nest, often called a fortress, below ground at depths of up to one metre, but in areas of low lying land which are prone to flooding or in areas of thin, poor soil, Moles will construct a more permanent fortress above ground level. Moles usually only build one nest and it can be situated anywhere within the tunnel system but is usually away from the range boundary. The nest is lined with dry grass, leaves or even paper, all collected from above ground. The main nest can contain a large store of decapitated earthworms to act as a food reserve during periods of flooding or hard frosts. The home range for a female Mole is 1300-2,100 m² and the male range is 2,700-3,400 m², increasing to around three times that size during the breeding season.
Male Moles are generally larger than females; a study of Moles from Suffolk found males had a mean of 143 mm head and body length with females having mean length of 135 mm. This study also found the mean weight of males Moles was 110 g and of females 85 g (Harris and Yalden, 2008). While this study showed differences in the mean lengths and weights the range is such that size alone should not be used for distinguishing between the sexes. Moles moult twice, in spring and in autumn and the winter coat is longer than the summer fur.
Male and female Moles are solitary for most of the year; in the breeding season males will tunnel over extensive areas searching for females. Female Moles generally have one litter a year and the average litter size is four, with a range of two to seven. Gestation is about four weeks. The young are mostly born in April and May. They leave the nest at around four weeks and explore their mother’s tunnel system where they are tolerated for a few weeks before the young disperse to find territories of their own (Godfrey, 1962). Moles live for around three years but there is a high juvenile mortality in the first year.
Moles can vary in colour: while the majority are black, colours including cream, apricot, rust coloured, grey, silver grey and albino have been recorded. This variation in coat colour is “more frequent than in other British mammals, but no figure for frequencies [are] available.” (Godfrey, 1962). A possible explanation for this might be that because Moles spend so much time below ground pale coloured individuals are not predated as readily as they are in other species. Mennell and Perkins (1864) note that cream Moles are “not unfrequently met with” and they also record that a superstition exists in County Durham that the capture of a white Mole on a farm is said to foretell the death of the head of the household. They relate the story that “the Reverend G. C. Abbes tells us, in illustration of this, that the son of a small farmer near Sunderland, himself a man of middle age, and tired of waiting for his inheritance, offered a considerable reward to the Mole catcher if he could succeed in trapping a white Mole on the farm; after some little time the man brought the desired animal, and received the reward, accompanied with the following threat Deil tak ye! if ye catch anither white Mole on this farm I’ll smash your heed! No wonder! for the next white Mole would be the herald of the son’s own end.” Coloured Moles are not uncommon locally, and have been recorded from several locations in Northumberland and Durham; there is a known population in Coquetdale mainly around Rothbury to Thropton with 10 records, the earliest of which is from Lord Armstrong of Cragside in 1921. There is still a strong coloured population in this area today (John Steele, pers. comm., 2012). Cream Moles are still newsworthy: one was trapped in 2011 at Black Hill Farm near to Hexham and the story was featured in the Hexham Courant on 12 March 2012.
The Mole has colonised many different habitats where the soil is deep enough to allow the construction of their tunnel systems. Moles evolved as creatures of deciduous woodland but they have taken advantage of pasture and arable land. They occur in lower densities on moorland, in dune systems and in coniferous plantations, perhaps limited by the availability of prey.
The Mole is distributed throughout mainland Britain and has colonised the islands of Skye, Mull, Anglesey, Wight, Alderney and Jersey, but is absent from Ireland, Man and the outer Scottish islands. Moles have been recorded from the early Pleistocene and were present at Thatcham, Berkshire and Steely Cave, Derbyshire, both Mesolithic sites (Lovegrove, 2007).
The Mole is recorded by Selby (1855) in the First Report on the Fauna of Twizell. The Victoria History of the County of Durham (Page, 1905) lists Moles “as abundant here as elsewhere. Varieties of a cream or silver-grey colour are by no means uncommon, and I have records of such from many parts of the county. These varieties often have a more or less brilliant tinge of orange on the under-side and flanks. Several instances of this have been reported from Winlaton by Mr. Thos. Thompson, and a silver-grey Mole with the orange tinge was sent to the Newcastle Museum in 1903 from the Woodlands, Consett, by Mr. W. B. van Haansbergen.
Moles are widespread throughout the region, with most of the records relating to molehills. There are records for most areas where there are recorders and obvious gaps in the data may be more related to lack of recorders than lack of Moles. Moles do seem to be absent from urban centres, probably because of the lack of accessible land and no connectivity to more rural areas, although molehills have been noted on the outskirts of the Newcastle conurbation. There is a gap in Mole distribution in the area around Hartlepool headland. This is a built-up area with little greenspace and is not connected to the wider open countryside, and Moles have been looked for in this area for some years without success (Ian Bond, pers. comm., 2012). Moles also seem to have taken advantage of road verges, which is reflected to some extent in the pattern of the dots on our distribution map. Moles seem to be absent from the Northumberland uplands, but this may be the result of a lack of recorder effort rather than a true absence. The highest location a Mole has been recorded from in Northumberland is in the Bizzle Corrie on the north flank of The Cheviot at approx. 550 metres (John Steele, pers. comm., 2012). They are also quite widely distributed at approx. 500 metres above sea level around Widdybank Fell and Langdon in Durham (Ian Bond, pers. comm., 2012) and may well prove to go higher still should any mammal recorders venture there.
Written by Tina Wiffen (last updated Nov 12)