The much-maligned mole

Year of Soils column by Gerard Korthals, April

Few reality TV shows have been more successful than The Mole, in which players must unmask a double agent who sabotages their every move. The format’s been sold to forty countries, and you won’t find many TV viewers here in the Netherlands who haven’t at the very least heard of it. If only the real mole – Talpa europea – could claim to be as popular! Yet of all the soil’s inhabitants, the mole is probably the best known….or should I say notorious?

Farmers and avid gardeners dread the all too familiar sight of molehills upsetting their freshly mowed lawn or pasture. The upturned earth is perfect for garden plants, as it’s high in minerals but low in weeds, coming from a deeper layer of soil. But not a lot of people know that. In most people’s eyes, moles are simply a nuisance.

Otters are apex predators just like moles, and as a researcher I’ve studied both. But while otters are many people’s favourite watershed ambassadors, the underground lifestyle and less cuddly character of moles means they can’t compete in the publicity stakes.

And yet…if you’ve ever held or touched a mole - dead or alive - it’s impossible to feel anything but the deepest respect. What other animal is so brilliant at burrowing despite being only 15 cm in length and practically blind? I’ve seen them at work in my vegetable patch and the speed is just amazing. Mind you, according to mole catchers that’s also the perfect moment to trap them.

Just drive a spade into the ground right behind where the mole is burrowing and scoop it up. You can then safely release the mole in your neighbours’ yard…at least in the animal-friendly version I’ve cared to remember. The other version is probably more simple, but not everyone can handle the truth.

I caught a mole once when I was young. I was afraid it would bite me, but fascinated at the same time by its amazing beauty. What I remember most are its big forepaws and velvety fur. How can an animal that spends its entire life burrowing in the soil be so clean and shiny, when I get dirty doing the tiniest bit of gardening? And there shouldn’t even be any need for moles to stay clean, as they’re too blind to notice the difference anyway! It makes the mole the only soil animal I may actually envy.

Keywords: year of soil columns