The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 22 March 2019

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The heron had gone fishing, but it was unlikely to catch any fish! It was standing next to a large pool of rainwater in a field so certainly no fish to be plundered there. However, the bird's vigil was not necessarily entirely doomed for there was a possibility that migrating frogs might have taken refuge in this new if temporary water feature.  Herons clearly don't rely entirely upon fish.  They are adept at ambushing frogs when they are migrating and indeed are known to consume small mammals such as short-tailed field voles and water voles.  They also have a penchant for snatching the odd duckling, given half the chance!

An appetite for voles was demonstrated to me on one occasion, when I witnessed the bizarre sight of three herons marching abreast across a field.  From time to time any one of the three would break ranks to dart forward and snatch an unsuspecting vole from the rank grass they were almost wading through.  On another occasion - a spring day - I watched a heron busily intercepting frogs freshly emerged from hibernation on a very wide bit of roadside verge.

Herons may already be sitting on eggs for these are early entrants in the race to produce a new generation.  Mostly they nest in the tree-tops, often favouring Scots Pine plantations.  There is an element of ungainliness about them as they come in to land at their high rise colonies.  In song we often hear about 'the lonlely heron' yet by and large they choose to nest in colonies and I have often observed their communal style of living where young are cared for in creches.

Yet for all that perceived clumsiness, herons are real killing machines even if they sometimes give the impression of lethargy especially when standing beside or even in the water, shoulders hunched, giving a good impression of being half asleep!  But don't be fooled by the statuesque heron. Believe me, it is wide-awake and completely programmed to act in a flash when prey comes within striking range.  When it does, the sleeping beauty is transmogrified into a fast reacting predator, neck now cocked back to strike with the speed of a snake, those piercing yellow eyes utterly focussed, the long, dagger-like beak the deadly killing weapon.

The only time a heron appears to lose its composure is when it strikes and drags an eel from the water.  Eels don't give up their lives readily and may wrap themselves around that long beak in a desperate attempt to stay alive.  Now the heron only has recourse to finding a rock against which to beat the offending eel into submission before, once it is comatose. it can at last be ushered down that long neck. Mind you as I have said before, I once saw a heron's composure completely shattered when out of a clear blue sky hurtled an angry osprey.  Herons in flight can be remarkably sedate.  On that occasion any such illusion was quickly dispelled as the poor heron was downed into the loch although it did eventually make its way to the shore.

Ospreys - the first of them are already back from their winter sojourn in West Africa - do not of course eat herons, their food requirement is exclusively fish.  However, Roy Dennis, that doyen of the restoration of ospreys to this country during those years in the latter part of the last century when they started to return, once asserted that he had seen an osprey catch a rabbit.  This was probably the one and only recorded occasion that the 'fish-only' diet was broken - the only exception to that otherwise strict rule.

Sometimes we can be surprised at what some creatures eat.  For example, and contrary to what some folks claim, foxes do not live exclusively upon lambs and domestic poultry.  Indeed, the diet of foxes can on occaasions be remarkably diverse.  For instance you might be surprised how many worms foxes consume, not to mention their appetite for small mammals.  Furthermore, later in the year there are more surprises in the enthusiastic consumption of hedgerow fruits, especially brambles.

In this respect they are not alone.  Much of the average badger's food comprises of worms and beetles, which may explain why they can often be found turning over cow pats.  They are in fact looking for the likes of beetles, which of course are always interested in such excrement.  My own badger watching days were often enhanced by the provision of a scattering of peanuts and of course badgers will enthusiastically plunder wild bee nests,

In recent days there has been a good deal of local pine marten activity - to the detriment of my now much-lamented late flock of hens!  Here to there are many misconceptions.  Some for instance, might have you believe that pine martens live entirely upon the eggs and chicks of songbirds not to mention hens!  Just as is the case with regard to foxes, young lambs are only generally vulnerable for a short period during the spring.  So also, the eggs and young of birds are only really vulnerable whilst they are on the nest.  Like foxes, pine marten also enjoy the taste of wayside fruits.

They also enjoy the odd hen's egg!  Some years ago, a pine marten discovered a gap in a roof behind which she decided, was the ideal place in the roof-space of a house belonging to a friend in which to make a nest. That summer, we were treated to extensive views of a pine marten collecting food from our friend's conservatory roof and later to the even more intriguing sight of her two youngsters also enjoying the food willingly provided by an exceptionally generous human!

Another acquaintance who once lived in an isolated cottage deep in a Highland forest, entertained pine marten regularly in his kitchen - the attraction being of all things strawberry jam sandwiches!  Another alternative favourite are peanut butter sandwiches! Pine marten have also been in the news of late because some Scottish born pine marten have been translocated to the Forest of Dean.

There has been a complete turnaround in pine marten fortunes in recent years.  Once, of course, they were vigorously hunted almost to extinction. But since coming under the protection of the law in 1978, the rump of them that was left in some remoter parts of the Highlands, has grown out of all recognition and re-colonised territories from which they expelled long ago.

Since their arrival here several years ago, they have certainly seen-off the grey squirrels, which have happily been replaced by our native red squirrels.  If they manage to accomplish a similar feat in the Forest of Dean, one suspects they will be more than welcome and certainly more welcome that the wild boar bow apparently roaming that said forest in their hundreds.

It may take tim to re-establish martens there because they are not prolific breeders having just one litter a year with usually no more that two off-spring.  However, the spread of pine marten throughout Scotland and their re-introduction to Wales is a real conservation success story to be seen alongside the return of the osprey and the re-introduction of the red kite.  Furthermore if the martens can devastate the grey squirrel populations there as they have here, they will I'm sure, be doubly welcome!


Weekly Nature Watch 15 March 2019

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Unquestionably, the sap is rising.  Nothing more clearly illustrates the growing enthusiasm for the fast approaching season of renewal, than the song thrush which has taken up residence in my orchard and is currently belting out his message to female thrushes that he is available.  And, judging by the passion that clearly laces his daily musical diatribe, he is definitely in the mood!

On the loch there is further evidence of approaching spring provided by a gaggle of goldeneye, already enthusiastically indulging in their courtship displays.  The males throw their heads back so that their bills are pointing skyward and paddle furiously in their attempts to impress the gathering of the plainer looking ducks.  These displays are as action-packed as the song of the thrush is so audibly vibrant.

What seems so bizarre about that particular courtship ritual is that it is happening before the goldeneye community takes leaves of us to return to its breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Northern Russia.  It is assumed that pairings established here during winter and spring, are maintained when they reach their native heaths.  If there appears to be just as much enthusiasm generated by the vocalisation of the thrush, as in the goldeneyes' gyrations, the curiosity is that they, the goldeneye, just need to fly a few thousand miles before their enthusiasm can finally be consummated!

There have been isolated incidents of goldeneye nesting in Britain and there have been a variey of attempts to encourage them to breed here with the provision of nesting boxes in what are regarded as suitable locations.  Goldeneye, of course, nest in tree holes.  Indeed, the youngsters are extremely resilient little creatures for at just one day old, they leave their relatively high rise nests and tumble to the floor.  They are therefore the epitome of 'bouncing babies'!

Meanwhile, the chaffinches are literally swarming on and around my bird-table.  The pink breasts of the males are now fairly glowing as most of them are in their full breeding plumage.  Indeed, whilst I have yet to hear a chaffinch in voice, the feistiness demonstrated by these cock birds as they break off from snatching as many morsels as possible to confront one another is in itself significant.  Chest to chest they fly up in brief bouts of rivalry, which shows that here too the sap is rising!

There was also a significant moment when there were suddenly two robins feeding side by side, picking away at the detritus that is spilt from the array of feeders above.  Clearly they are a pair, for cock robins simply never tolerate the presence of other cock robins.  For all their sweet singing, their apparent boldness and a willingness to often live in close proximity of people, robins are among the most intolerant and belligerent of birds.  Two such cock birds will show such a degree of animosity towards each other that they are sometimes prepared to battle to the bitter end - in extreme cases to the death! The two that are vigorously pecking away here are obviously a pair for they are entirely happy in one another's company!

At the nearby rookery, there is increasingly feverish activity as more of the colony begin their 'spring cleaning', restoring their nests as best as they can, repairing any damage winter storms may have caused and adding choice sticks to their structures.

Here too there can be little traumas over miniscule territories, although fighting to the death is not the way with rooks. However, as mentioned before, there is plenty of evidence of theft.  I watched one bird, perched quietly beside its own nest which, as soon as its neighbours had departed to collect more nesting material, was quickly in action, pilfering choice bits of sticks from the other nest and weaving them into its own.

There has been plenty of evidence in courtship among the rooks with an abundance of bowing and scraping as pairs strengthen their bonds. The males present themselves to the femaies. their food pouches brimful of food mostly comprising of insects and grubs and including many that are crop pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets.  The males then regurgitate their nuptial gifts and feed them to the females.  There are bouts of mutual preening and canoodling as the pair may tenderly fondle one another's bills.

Although rooks pair for life, there are times when infedility can be rife.  However, other aspects of rook life are surprisingly disciplined.  For instances, there is a kind of class structure, which ensures that the most senior ranked birds enjoy the richest of the pickings when a flock feeds communally.  The birds further down the pecking order have to settle for less advantageous places on the edge of the flock in which to feed.  This social order is, I suppose, a case of maintaining a strong gene pool by ensuring that the fittest survive.

The theme of discipline caries over into other aspects of rook society, with what are sometimes known as 'Rook Parliaments' in which the senior members of a colony - the elders - gather together and seemingly sentence a member of their flock to either expulsion or death.  This group of senior birds then carries out the sentence by literally pecking the victim of their perfunctory justice to death or by literally kicking it out!  I have witnessed such events and conclude that the victim must be a bird that is sick and thus deemed to pose an infectious threat to the rest of the community.  I do not believe that the victims are merely miscreants as some suggest! Otherwise those thieving nest builders would all be victims!

As already said, the theme of courtship is manifested in different ways, by song and by display.  However, another factor is appearance, especially colour.  Mallard drakes are very colourful whereas the ducks are much plainer.  Furthermore, the brighter the colours of the male, the more impressed is the female.  However, this colour variation only applies to certain species.   The aforementioned chaffinches illustrate the point, the males resplendent in colour, the females relatively plain.  In contrast, the male and female goldfinches are identical which is why as spring advances, males show some aggression towards females until they have established their gender!

Some of the most invigorated displays in the spring are provided by our raptors.  Arguably the most spectacular is enacted by the rare hen harriers when the grey male soars high with prey in its talons. The brown female then flies up and the male now folding its wings and diving, drops his 'gift' which is then adroitly caught in mid-air by the female with all the aplomb of a cricketer.  Sometimes such and exchange takes place directly from talon to talon.

During these next two weeks, many of us will be hoping to enjoy our first sighting of returning ospreys.  They also provide some spectacular displays, the male birds flying to great heights, pausing briefly to hover, and then diving spectacularly.  Its all beginning to happen as the landscape once more comes alive, despite the brief return of bouts of wintry weather including flurries of snow.  Meanwhile, the volume of spring song continues to rise by the day.  And, slowly, with the gradual appearance of that green haze on the trees we can be sure that the season of re-birth is at last beginning to galvanise itself.  The sap is definitely rising!

Weekly Nature Watch 8 March 2019

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There have been times, both past and present, when mankind has harnessed nature in order to protect precious grain crops against the ravages of rodents.  In times past, when the strorage of grain was perhaps less secure than it is nowadays, besides traps, the likes of cats and owls were widely used in the battle against mice and rats.  Famously of course, the ancient Egyptians regarded the cat as an invaluable ally in their war against rodents and the likes of snakes and scorpions.  Indeed, cats were so revered that they were created Gods.

Down the years, cats have also long been used to control rodents in this and many other countries.  And it is a fact that farming man was acutely aware of the advantages of encouraging owls to nest in their buildings for exactly the same reason.  Indeed, provision was always made for the accommodation and nesting of owls, when farm buildings were being designed and erected.

Nowadays, scant attention is paid to such detail.  Modern farm buildings, in comparison with their predecessors, are stark and un-welcoming - or at least for owls.  They are designed entirely for practicality.  However, cats remain as prime rodent controllers on many farms.  And of course cat ownership among the masses has mushroomed.  All of which is not good news for our one and only native carnivore that appears to be in real danger of extinction.  Various figures have been bandied about but the fact seems to be that pure Scottish wildcats are disappearing before our very eyes due primarily to their hybridisation with feral cats.  Pure wildcats, it would appear, are quickly disappearing.

Thus, a number of schemes are currently in progress in a last-ditch attempt to halt the steep decline and in the future, hopefully stimulate a growth in the numbers of true wildcats.  In some selected areas there has been a massive attempt to neuter as many domestic and feral cats as practicable and eliminate the latter wherever possible.  Quite a task when it comes to feral cats for they can be extremely covert and therefore very difficult to locate.  But the effort is being made.  However, it will only be possible to judge its success in the long term.

Generally, our wildlife is under pressure due to the expansion of human populations and the consequentially ever-increasing demand for land for more and more housing.  There are also many other reasons to which I have alluded on previous occasions.  However, recent research would indicate, that with the exception of the wildcat, most other carnivores seem to be doing pretty well.  For instance, I'm sure that readers will be surprised to learn that badgers are thought to have doubled their numbers in the UK since the nineteen eighties.

Taken as a group, carnivores have taken a bit of a pounding down the years.  The emergence of the large-scale sporting estates in the nineteenth century saw anything that was classed as game given very spacial status at the expense of all carnivores and indeed all birds of prey too. Hence war was waged on a massive scale against anything deemed to threaten game, inlcuding incidently, hedgehogs which sometimes were guilty of consuming the eggs of game birds.

Otters, among our most loved animals, were also heavily persecuted because, of course, they ate fish which were somehow thought to be the exclusive objects of rod-wielding man's desire. Until it was banned in 1978, otter hunting was carried out in may parts of Britain. And if hunting had not been enough the wide-scale use of organochlorine pesticides leached into water systems and further depleted otter populations.  These pesticides were thankfully banned in 1978 and it is thought that as a result, just about every river system in Britain now has otters.  Latest estimates suggest that are now as many as 11,000 otters in our rivers and along our coasts.

The war on wildlife all those years ago, saw birds such as the sea eagle and osprey wiped out whilst the polecat disappeared from Scotland and was almost followed by the pine marten.  The marten just hung on after severe persecution and again thanks to the protection of the law and a more informed attitude towards them, they have now spread to many parts of Scotland.  Indeed, they have also been re-intoduced to such places as Wales and the Forest of Dean.  Pine marten are not prolific breeders so these translocations will more readily serve to extend the range of their population.  It is estimated there are now approaching four thousand pine marten in Britain. Ironically, the ancient Greeks, in their efforts to restrain rodent populations, rather than using cats as a deterrent, kept instead the stone marten, a close relative of the the pine marten, as pets.

Stoats especially and to a degree, weasels are not doing quite so well either, perhaps due to the nation-wide decline in rabbits which are currently suffering due to the arrival of another deadly virus which is decimating their numbers. There is also some concern about the wide use of rodent poisons, which can of course readily enter the food chain.

If our carnivores therefore appear to be prospering despite the constant spread of human activity, a continuing degree of some persecution and our ever-increasing volumes of road traffic, the current proposal to introduce lynx to this area poses something of a dilemma.  The Scottish landscape has changed radically since the lynx was last a presence here.

There are now many more people either dwelling in or visiting our countryside, many of whom are seeking, recreational activities. There are also thousands of sheep, which provide farming folk with a living.  Although we are told that lynx much prefer to live covert lives deep in woodland and live mostly on deer and small mammals, there can be little doubt that they are likely to see nearby grazing sheep as easy targets.  Recent reports of conflict between sheep farmers and lynx elsewhere in Europe add fuel to that fire.

If, in one sense, I would love to be able to see lynx in the wild because they are beautiful creatures, I am sure that such a re-introduction would do little to lessen the conflict already evident in our rural areas. Is it not the case that such a re-introduction would add considerable stress to the sheep-farming industry already in a quandary about its future due to the possible ramifications of Brexit? I suggest that at this moment in time it would be unwise to increase further animosity between those of us who admire and enjoy our wildlife and those who farm the land and produce so much of our food.

Country View Article 1 March 2019

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There is a real momentum as spring emerges with record-breaking temperatures sending the mercury spiralling upwards.

Now the landscape is really waking from its winter torpor. First, some weeks ago. there was the drumming of great spotted woodpeckers, followed by the assertive sawing of a solitary great tit. That noise is now echoing from every airt and is even more assertive as the days lengthen and anticipation of advancing spring rises.  Further confirmation of the slow advance of spring came with the mellow song of a crocus-billed cock blackbird, those oh-so-rich notes carrying far and wide.  Then followed the oft-repeated phrases of a plethora of song thrushes and the high pitched, almost broken, sprawling song of dunnock.

If the volume of bird-song continues to increase by the day, there is evidence too of seasonal movement with observations of frogs emerging from their winter hibernation.  The sight of hordes of them hopping their way towards their traditional breeding ponds illustrated so clearly that the time has definitely come to re-energise. Driven by pure instinct, they march blindly on so that motorists are asked to keep their eyes open for them.  Roads have to be crossed as the frogs, impelled by their re-awakened instincts, are oblivious to the dangers they face.  Unfortunately, that will be as far as some of them get!  'Auto motoris' is, I'm afraid a deadly and often an unknowing predator of all that crosses its path!

The brief sighting of a bat wheeling in flight just after dusk provided further indication of the re-awakening of all those creatures that seek winter solace by simply sleeping through it!  Furthermore, joining the multitude of chaffinches and goldfinches on my bird-table is a handful of siskins, which, true to form, always appear here in late February and early March.  And, during these past few days the local bare-branched rookery has been visited by a handful of its black residents.

Of course, tradition has it that on this very first day of March (St David's Day), rooks are supposed to return to their high-rise nests and begin the process of either refurbishment or reconstruction.  These first returning members of this lofty community are perhaps jumping the gun. However, rooks are famous pilferers, always prepared to pinch a few choice twigs from neighbouring nests in order to make their own home improvements.  These then are perhaps the opportunists of spring!

Then, to really lift my heart, the lovely lilting voice of a lone curlew drifted across the fields.  Once, such a sound was commonplace but now I'm afraid, the curlew is in serious decline.  Shrinking habitat is thought to be a major concern of this and schemes are in hand to try and re-create the right kind of conditions for this iconic bird of our landscape which might reverse that down-turn.  As said on previous occasions, the switch by farming-man to silage making has clearly had a deleterious effect upon nesting curlews and indeed those other iconic residents of farmland, lapwings.

Curlews breed on heaths, bogs and grassland, all of which are these days either shrinking habitats or as in the case of grassland, have been subjected to such major changes in methods of land management.  Their decline may also be related to a lack of predator control, especially where crows are in abundance.  The wide-scale planting of many upland areas with great blocks of conifer plantations covering vast acreages has, of course, robbed curlews and many other birds of important breeding areas.  Global warming may also be deleteriously affecting the inverterbrate life that curlews and the likes of lapwings depend upon.

That wild 'coor-li' call is the one I first remember hearing when as a lad I began my love affair with the hills and moors.  Although those first experiences happened a long time ago of course, they still resonate as clearly in my mind as if they had happened yesterday.  Indeed the wild two-note call of the curlew and its bubbling territorial song as it glides around its realm, together with the sound of wailing lapwings and the ceaseless singing of skylarks were vital parts of the sonic dimension of those exploratory days.  Indeed, thinking back, those curlews perhaps provided the most vibrant and audible part of the whole 'wild' experiences we enjoyed.

These are early days to be thinking about looking out for returning migrants albeit that the first of them will in fact already be on their way.  However, there will hopefully be in these next few days and weeks, a return of birds such as the curlews, better known perhaps as whaups and the lapwings which glory in an abundance of pseudonyms.  These, together with oyster-catchers, winter on nearby estuaries and sea-shores but especially during this spell of remarkably mild weather, are encouraged to move inland for the breeding season.

Inevitably, I have also already heard the first fusillade of the shrill piping of oyster-catchers echoing across the landscape.  Their numbers have also certainly diminished in many inland areas where a few years ago, that neurotic piping was one of the most familar of early spring sounds.  Indeed, visitors to this airt were often puzzled by the presence of these striking black and white birds so far away from the sea-shores where they might, in truth, have perhaps expected them to be.

Indeed, the arrival of oyster-catchers in inland areas and their choice of breeding sites away from the marine environment probably dates back over a hundred years. As 'the war to end all wars' loomed, more land went under the plough to produce essential food during those difficult days of conflict.  The oyster-catchers quickly learned that newly ploughed ground presented a feeding bonanza in the shape of countless invertebrates and as the years rolled by, more and more of them chose to locate themselves inland for the breeding season.

If we really want to continue to celebrate the arrival of spring with the lifting voices of curlew, lapwings and the frantic piping of oyster-catchers ringing in our ears, we need to find ways of helping them and other farmland birds. In addition, if we want to hear the music of ascending larks, the cheery pronouncements of the likes of yellowhammers and resonant music of many other famland birds, currently in very serious decline, we may have to make a few changes to the way we do some things.  That may mean land managers making special provision for wildlife in general and perhaps planting small amounts of sacrificial crops.

Not by any means, am I advocating that we should farm all the land this way, more that I am advocating a type of set-aside whereby small acreages of land could literally be left for the benefit of nature. It depends whether or not you value the sight and sounds of curlew, lapwing, larks, yellowhammers and the like.  If they still matter to you, such measures could be a very desirable and positive option and a means of re-wilding our landscape.










Country View Article 22 Feb 2019

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There is so much wildlife that we seldom ever if ever see.  Most of our mammals, for instance, are likely to be abroad during the hours of darkness when I guess most of us are inclined to remain indoors, cosseted by modern central heating, our attention held by the magic eye of television. Some, I suppose, are glued to their mobile phones or tablets for I remain somewhat disturbed by the number of people who seem completely absorbed by such devices that the world at times appears to pass them by,  Many seem utterly oblivious to what is going on around them!

Yet, once the blanket of darkenss in the evening then the night descends, out there is a veritable hive of industry.  Roe deer emerge from the cover afforded t them by woodland and forests, to graze the surrounding fields.  Meanwhile, as alluded to last week, increasing numbers of red deer ar seeking the shelter of lowland forests from which they also emerge at night time to exploit the succulent grazing now available to them.

And, new life is already about to come into the world as vixens bed down in their earths in preparation for the birth of this year's litter of cubs. Many will come into the world in March thus they are initially unseen and indeed wer are generally unaware of such moments.  Our first sightings of fox cubs may not come until April or even May.  Equally unseen are the badger cubs, often also born in March - also of course in their subterranean setts - but usually not glimpsing the wider world until May.

At this time of the year, both foxes and badgers spend a good deal of time in the darkness of the subterranean world below ground, out of signt and for most folk, out of mind. Indeed, badgers live a largely covert lifestyle except for the almost endless days of midsummer.  Seldom do they expose themselves to the glare of sunlight. Only when midsummer stretches our days are they likely to be active above ground in broad daylight.  Otherwise they remain secure in their underground world.  The sett I used to watch, at one time on a nigthly basis, many years ago was within a hundred yards or so of a cottage in which for eighty years a country gentleman had lived.  Yet this otherwise observant chap had never during his long lilfe ever seen a badger! As said, badgers are covert, hight-time creatures.

There is however, another creature, which leaves plenty of evidence of its enduring presence in the fields and occasionally in gardens too but of which we are otherwise largely oblilvious.  We never even see a single haur of this little fellow, yet we certainly see plenty of evidence of its presence.  I refer of course, to those eternal miners known by some folk as 'mouldiwarps', by others, especially those Jacobite sympathies, as 'the little gentlemen in the velvet coats'!  The latter phrase was once a popular Jacobite toast due to the fact that King William - he of the Orange persuasion - was killed when his horse tripped over a molehill. In recent days of little frost and judging b the new lines of mole-hills, which seem currently to be appearing on a daily or perhaps nightly basis everywhere I look, moles have been very active indeed.

Of course, agricultural man has waged war on moles probably ever since farming took root. Poisons and traps have been employed widely by generations of mole-catchers up and down the country and the grisly spectacle of the bodies of trapped moles hung in line on wire fences used to be commonplace.  These days it seems modern day mole-catchers are more discreet and such gibbets seem now to have become a rarity.  However, the war on moles has been going on officially for a long time. The legal persecution of moles goes back as far as 1566 when the first Act of Parliament allowing for their control was passed!

"As Mad as a Hatter"!

And, there was a time when mole pelts were extremely valuable and much sought after by the makers of hats and various forms of clothing.  Of course, mole fur, unlike any other pelts can famously be brushed either backwards of forwards.  Indeed, moles can convey themselves through the tunnels they dig as easly forwards as they can backwards because of the 'two-way' nature of their fur. However, the phrase, 'As Mad as a Hatter', has more than a grain of truth about it.  Regular wearers of hats made from moleskin were in danger of being affected by the chemicals, notably heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which were used in the process of curing moleskins.  These substances could slowly be absorved through the skin of the wearer....with unfortunate consequences.  Hence the phrase!

Worms form the bulk of the diet of moles.  And worms are of course, greatly valued as aerators of the soil by both gardners and farmers.  Moles are enormously energetic.  Entirely unseen by us, they toil ceaselessly in their constant pursuit of worms and of course in the continual expansion of their tunnelled environment by the manic digging of ever more mole highways.  Moreover in their constant search for food - a mole can comfortably eat atleast three-quarters of its own body-weigth in a day - they also devour lots of pest such as wire-worms and leather-jackets.  Furthermore, moles collect and store worms, which they disable by biting their heads off ensuring they remain fresh.

Thus, there may well be a counter-argument to those who condemn moles for the damage they do.  Indeed, I well recall talking to a farmer in an Alpine meadow in Austria. He was busy spreading the soil from molehills with a cane-like stick and he sang the praises of the moles for excavating such splendid soil! However, if you have a manicured lawn, a tennis court, bowling green or cricket pitch, apoplexy can result as a reaction to the energetic pursuit of worms conducted overnight by a mole or two!

It is quite amazing, especially at this time of the year, just how energetic moles can be....underneath our very feet.  But everything about them is full of energy.  Thos JCB-like front feet can move mountains of soil very quickly.  But male moles can be aggressive, especially in the spring when they vie to mate with the females.  It is when mini mole wars are going on underground that occasionally we may see a mole above ground.  Usually it is a male that has just lost a battle and been put to flight.  I once saw one such exile.  It had been forced out of its tunnel close to a busy main road.  At first it tried digging through tarmac, obviously failing.  Thereafter it scuttled across the road, miraculously avoiding the wheels of passing vehicles until it reached the verge.  Its massive front claws were quickly put to good effect. Within seconds it had gone!

The evidence of their presence is everywhere to be seen. The war against them may continue relentlessly.  Yet for all the efforts of the few mole-catchers that remain, moles continue to retain their reputation as indomitable creators of lunar-like landscapes.  Those molehills just keep appearing.  Down there in that underground world there is clearly at work an energetic population of dynamic earh-moving workaholics!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods