North Coast Journal


Holey moley

by Terry Kramer

We spent hours STUDYING masonry how-to books and days of knee-bending, back-aching labor laying a brick patio on a sand base. Everything was properly level, square and by the book.

But nothing was ever written about what happens when a mole makes its presence known. So it was a bitter disappointment to discover one morning several mounds of earth, these dark melanomas, covering the newly laid brick. Gallons of soil were pushed up between cracks not yet mortared. A 40-pound chunk of flagstone was forced aside. A mole.

I dealt with the problem by opening the holes, inserting a few mothballs and repairing the damage. And the mole never returned, the horrible odor of napthlene driving it away to another part of the yard.

Since my industrious little mole is merely 7 inches long and weighs less than 6 ounces, I have to admire its ability to move a heavy stone that I didn't appreciate lifting. These insectivorous mammals are fascinating creatures that actually do more good than harm in the garden. Moles eat prodigious amounts of harmful garden insects -- cutworms, wireworms, sowbugs, centipedes, millipedes and beetle larvae are among their culinary pleasures.

Researchers estimate that a single mole can eat between 50 to 80 pounds of insects per year. This is because a mole must eat at least its weight in food daily, or it will die.

Moles are especially fond of earthworms, unfortunately. And when a mole happens upon more earthworms than it can consume at the moment, it stores them in a cache. The mole will bite off an earthworm's head, twist it into a knot and push it into a cavity in the soil. A single mole can store several thousand earthworms this way. Even if it doesn't eat all the worms, there is no waste. Earthworms regenerate at the head, so they grow a whole new body and wiggle away.

It is the mole's constant need for food that drives it to drill through even the most compacted soils. A muscular cylindrical body equipped with oversized front feet that look like clawed paddles allows the mole to scrape through the earth in a swimming-like motion.

Forefeet push the soil against the side of a tunnel and compact it. Back feet grip the tunnel wall for leverage. In good soil, moles can travel up to 30 yards an hour and will easily do 50-plus when in rut. They can run 80 feet per minute in an established tunnel.

Mole hills are formed when the animal encounters rocks, tree roots, hard, compacted soil -- and newly laid brick patios. Moles create elaborate tunnel systems below the ground. Here they breed, raise young and catch insects.

In the spring, when the soil warms and insect activity increases, moles bear their young in nests. A female usually has two to four hairless babies. By early summer the young are out on their own, which accounts for the large amount of tunnelling at this time. Much mounding and tunnelling also occurs in the fall, when the moles migrate to other areas searching for more food.

Since theirs is a dark, subterranean existence, moles have very little use for sight. Some species have eyes that are tiny, undeveloped pin-pricks. Others have eyes covered with skin. Most moles can distinguish light from dark, but they cannot define objects.

To compensate for lack of sight, moles have incredible hearing and smelling abilities, and this is what enables them to find food. Sensory hairs cover the nose and front feet, which prevent them from bumping into the sides of their tunnels when doing 80 fpm.

In fact, a mole's skin has more sensory organs than any other mammal. And their fur has no set, which means you can stroke it backwards or forwards and it lies the same. This phenomenon allows the mole to travel backwards in a tunnel, if necessary.

During ancient times and the Middle Ages, mole skins were quite popular for making and trimming coats and hats. In the 1920s dyed mole skins were the rage, and by 1930 more than 20 million furs were sold. Mole trapping was a lucrative business.

Trapping is an effective, albeit cruel, method of ridding a garden of moles. Traps are medieval, spring-loaded contraptions that, when tripped, harpoon the little creature with sharp spears. I have never used one of these traps, because first, I'd probably impale my fingers (those traps are dangerous), and secondly, I'd never have the stomach to remove the poor animal from the trap.

Personally, I let the moles have their way in the flower and vegetable garden. They eat many harmful insects and aerate the soil naturally. If they get to be a nuisance in the lawn around the leach lines, along the driveway and gravel walkways, or near the foundation of the house, I put a few mothballs down their tunnels, forcing them to go elsewhere. I do not use mothballs in areas where edible plants are grown. I used to try drowning them with the garden hose -- doesn't work. Moles can swim!

Besides, nature has its own way of controlling the mole population. Owls, raptors, ravens, martens and herons prey on moles. Foxes, dogs and cats will kill moles, but seldom eat them. Moles will fight each other for territory, the victor often eating the loser.

My cat once brought to the doorstep a pair of velvety black moles. I stroked their soft fur and felt sad. I remembered meeting Moley in "The Wind and the Willows." "So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, 'Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight."
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and the owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.

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