Most people give little thought to moles until they spy grassless streaks and mounds of displaced earth marring garden beds or well-manicured lawns and golf courses. With its clawed paddlelike forepaws, the burrowing mole resembles a swimmer doing the breaststroke as it tunnels nearly twenty feet an hour in search of food. The resulting straight runways just below the surface and maize-like exploratory passages cause the most aesthetic damage, but moles also create a deeper layer of tunnels and chambers for nesting and sleeping. Similar in shape to a large baking potato, the adult mole spends most of its life underground in search of food, emerging only when it needs to find a mate, nesting material, or water during a drought.
Tunneling requires energy. To sustain themselves, moles consume one hundred percent, or more, of their body weight daily. Insect eaters, they devour termites, ants, snail larvae, and grubs, but their favorite delicacy is the earthworm. Pest exterminators advise eliminating the moles’ food source, which explains why I have seen neighbors spreading grub killer and others resorting to poison worms. Meanwhile, residents of the Great Plains and American deserts seldom need such products since moles favor the less arid regions of the Midwest and moist areas of the eastern and western coasts.
Unwanted pests today, moles found a niche in the early eighteenth-century United Kingdom when parishes employed mole catchers. People found the meat vile, but mole pelts became desirable in the manufacture of waistcoats, top hats, muffs, and the lining of gloves. The fashionable Queen Alexandra started a trend when she requested a moleskin coat. With moles ranging in size from five to nine inches, a fur coat required as many as five hundred pelts cut into rectangles and stitched together. Because moles come in a variety of shades of grey and taupe, furriers also dyed the fur to ensure uniform color. Labor-intensive, the use of mole fur in clothing waned by the mid-twentieth century.
A mole’s fur is dense by design, evolving over time to facilitate forward and backward movement through the ground. Instead of lying flat, each hair is vertical to avoid soil accumulation. A fur covering also protects a mole’s eyes, leading people to assume moles are blind, when in fact they can discern light and dark. Heightened senses of touch and smell aid the mole in compensating for visual and aural deficiencies.
This morning while watering my plot at the community garden I discovered a mole run crisscrossing rows of beans and hills of squash. Stomping it down gives only temporary satisfaction because my garden is home to many earthworms, and I know this mole will soon return. I am more tolerant of moles than my partner, who has declared war on the ones who venture into our yard. We’ve read that a mole’s territory is approximately two acres, but she’s trapped as many as fourteen in one year on our tiny one-third acre plot. Evidently, according to our local mole expert, we live on a mole highway. Wily ones evade her traps, but if the ground starts to shift while she’s looking out the window, the culprit’s time is limited. Sometimes she buries it on the spot, while at other times she commits it to a mole cemetery in the woods, small twigs marking the graves.
The neighbor next door is tender-hearted and can’t bring herself to kill moles even though she also lives on the mole highway. Instead, she relies on pest eliminators to install traps and check them several times a week. Commercial mole trapping services are not cheap. Another neighbor, hoping for a more humane solution, attempted to relocate moles until she realized many others stood in wait to fill the void.
Based on the amount of mole damage in our yard, one might assume they live in colonies, but the opposite is true. Loners, moles lead solitary lifestyles during their four-to-six-year lifespan except for a brief mating season in late winter or early spring. Females give birth to litters of two to seven a month after gestation and push their pups out of the nest within six weeks. As I walked to the garden recently, I spotted a tiny creature on the sidewalk. It looked like a mouse, but upon closer inspection I saw the tell-tale snout and paddle-like paws. I wonder how many survive to make their own molehills.
We’re all familiar with the idiom, “to make a mountain out of a molehill,” which appeared in a mid-sixteenth-century translation by English playwright Nicholas Udall. A common enough phrase, it’s a wonder Shakespeare didn’t name his play, “Much Ado About Moles.” Today, people tend to credit the phrase to English physician and sex researcher Havelock Ellis. Perhaps it came to mind one day as he stared at molehills in his yard while listening to his wife or a colleague exaggerate the severity of their situation. Molehills are minuscule when compared to places like Mount Washington or the Rockies, but after having firsthand experience with moles and molehills, I realize everything is relative.
Like Sisyphus attempting to roll the stone uphill, mere mortals face an impossible task when it comes to mole control. Or do we? After weeks of drilling in our neighborhood by a local utility company, our yard is mole free for the first time in years. It took us awhile to realize why. Despite having fur flaps over their ears, moles possess excellent hearing and equate vibration with the presence of predators. For now, at least, they have abandoned our neighborhood. But I know they live to tunnel another day.