The Velvet Sausage

A perceptive 12-year-old on a school trip once described a mole we found as a black velvet sausage.  It seemed to me to be a vivid description of the creature that is so familiar to us all and yet which so few have seen alive.

Living almost entirely underground, it’s not surprising that this small mammal has developed so many special adaptations to help overcome the problems presented by its chosen niche in life.

To create its own subterranean home range the largely solitary mole has to dig out a system of tunnels.  Especially powerful forelegs with huge spade-like feet do the necessary work with astonishing ease and at great speed.  I remember attempting to stop a mole from tunnelling back into the soil after a quick above-ground trip.  It disappeared within seconds despite my gentle yet firm attempts to prevent it, so powerful was its technique.

On another occasion I discovered a great way to delay its disappearing trick long enough for some amazed onlookers of a guided walk to view its business end.  By scooping it up into a plastic carrier bag the mole become decidedly disorientated as it systemically dug holes in the bottom of the suspended bag.  After each assault it stopped momentarily on discovering nothing but thin air, displaying its gigantic claws and large pig-like snout.

Tunnelling

Tunnelling is essential for the mole as it provides a large and comparatively safe living space and a reservoir of air which also doubles as a food trap.  Earthworms and soil dwelling insect larvae are its staple diet; the tunnel system acting like a fisherman’s net to the worms which are either eaten there and then or simply collected on its routine rattle round.

I always imagine it behaving like the old tubular pneumatic cash delivery system that operated in Fenwick’s years ago!  Incidentally, surplus worms are immobilised by a quick nip to the head end and stored in specially excavated storage chambers.  Up to a kilogram of worms have been found in these larders ready for a quick midnight feast.

In spring males extend their tunnel system until a receptive female is found, and after mating he clears off again, leaving the female to nurture the young.  The four youngsters born in the nesting chamber are bright pink and blind at first, but soon turn dark grey as the hair begins to grow.  They are suckled for five weeks where an 18 fold weight gain is achieved before learning to feed themselves in their mother’s tunnel system.

Eventually the juveniles are expelled to seek out their own territories.  This happens in summer and it’s at this time you may see one above ground.  Enormous numbers of juveniles fall prey to cats, foxes and tawny owls.   An authentic account of a herring gull eating a live mole described how after being swallowed, the mole literally dug its way out of the gull’s chest, only to die part way out of its now dead predator.

A chance to find a dead mole will give you an opportunity for a closer look.  Its black fur is silky smooth and lies in no particular direction.  This enables rapid reverse or U-turns and allows a continuous cleaning brush up as it squeezes through its tunnels.  Senses have become wonderfully adapted to subterranean life.  Its highly sensitive nose has organs unique to inspect eating mammals which are thought to respond to chemical, temperature and humidity variations.  Stiff sensitive hairs are found on the feet and tail and are used to pick up vibrations in the soil.  A mole’s tail is used as a sensory “feeler” as it is kept constantly in touch with the tunnel roof.  Not unexpectedly, eyes are tiny and for the most part are shrouded in fur to protect them from soil particles.  They are functional however when used above ground.  External ear lobes are absent and even the canal to the inner ear is able to be sealed by a special organ for protection.

Mole by John Steele

Widespread and common

Moles are widespread and common in the county and can be found from the coast to 1800 feet up in the Cheviots.  In woodland they tend to be rather inconspicuous, not needing to dig the familiar hills in the loose and uncompacted soils.  It’s on compacted agricultural land, golf courses and garden lawns that they are obvious and at times can pose a real problem.  Soil and stones from molehills can seriously contaminate silage and damage cutting machinery whilst subsidence in lawns and putting greens will raise blood pressure all round.

Well, how do you deal with a rampant mole?  Trapping or poisoning are the usual control methods but some of the deterrent measures tried have been ingenious.  Missed success has been achieved when attacking the mole’s sense of smell: creosoted rags, mothballs and even “essence of stoat” (a natural predator) have all been tried.  Apparently planting milk spurge in your lawn border may put off the hill maker, whereas ultrasonic devices remain unproven.

Finally, I must mention the famous orange or while moles of Rothbury and district.  Records of these beautifully coloured animals date back to the last century with occasional specimens still turning up to this day.  It would be very interesting if any reader were able to pinpoint any other areas that have produced such animals.

An Orange Mole being held