Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch - Archived from Feb 2019

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There is so much wildlife that we seldom if ever see.

Most of our mammals, for instance, are likely to be about 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 darkness in the evening then the night descends, out there is a veritable hive of industry. Roe deer emerge from the cover afforded to them by woodland and forests, to graze the surrounding fields. Meanwhile, as alluded to last week, increasing numbers of red deer are 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 we 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 sight 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 nightly 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 life ever seen a badger! As said, badgers are covert, night-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 oblivious. We never even see a single hair 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 with 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 by 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!

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 or forwards. Indeed, moles can convey themselves through the tunnels they dig as easily 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 absorbed 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 gardeners 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 at least three-quarters of its own body-weight in a day – they also devour lots of pests 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, or 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. Those 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 the 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 earth-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