Over a dozen dead moles- be a wildlife detective!
Setting the scene!
Over the years, along a certain section 62 of the Trans Pennine trail, between Forrest Way and the water treatment plant nearby, not far from Gatewarth landfill site in Warrington, I have come across well over a dozen dead moles on the soil surface next to the footpaths. The footpaths, wind their way through trees, past water filled ditches, shrubs, wet boggy areas, long grasses and other tall vegetation. Twice I have found two dead moles within a few 100 m of each other. I have only found them during the summer months. Looking at the lie of the land and noticing the sparsity of vegetation in some areas, evidence of human activity in others, the land was once used for some kind of industry or other human activity and later abandoned. This got me thinking and asking myself some questions. A bit of detective work here for you! The clues are all in the above! What killed them, how were they caught and why were they left? My conclusion is below, if you have other suggestions please add them to the comments! I thought this may appeal to my ex police colleagues!
I have found several dead moles along this path and to the side of it.
Signs of a skilled executioner
They all had two small puncture marks behind their heads where their necks would be and no other visible injury marks at all. I find this intriguing as some predator has precisely and expertly delivered a ‘coup de grace’ clinically and cleanly killing them, only to leave them without trying to conceal them or eat them. Not one had been eaten or partially eaten, nor had they been chewed, or showed any signs of wet or matted fur, as would be the case if a dog or cat had killed them nor any signs of blood elsewhere on the bodies. Just a dead mole in its black suede-like fur, wth just these two little neat puncture marks. As weasels and stoats can kill by inflicting a bite to the neck, I am assuming that it was such an animal that killed these moles. I have seen both weasels and stoats on this site in the past.
How were they caught?
During the nesting season moles will come to the surface to collect nesting material. In times of drought, moles do come to the surface in search of their favourite prey, worms. Where soil is simply not deep enough to tunnel through, moles will have to surface. Where is is too wet and boggy they have to leave that area. Young moles will leave their mothers burrows to search for and find a suitable area for them to start their own tunnel system.
Even though moles are essentially woodland animals, where the forest floor is easy to borrow through and earthworms and tasty invertebrates are in abundance, they have readily adapted to open pastures, parks and arable land. From visual evidence of numerous mole hills in that area, it is safe to presume that moles do indeed live in that area. Although moles have there own burrow systems, their tunnels can and do occasionaly overlap, although they try to avoid one another. However in the breeding season if resident males meet they can and do fight fiercely, sometimes to the death. In the past this area had some industrial usage and the soil in certain places is very thin and therefore not deep enough for moles. Thus their tunnelling and therefore living areas are defined soil, soil type, soil depth, lack of soil and stones, bricks etc., buried in the soil.
This in turn will affect the density of moles in given areas within the site, concentrating them within small suitable areas bounded by unsuitable areas. Such areas will be defined by the soil. Where it is suitable moles will live. Where it is unsuitable, this has the potential to cause overcrowding. Stoats and weasels do not dig for their prey. The moles were therefore caught on the surface. Why were they on the surface? These victims went in search of an area in which to dig their own tunnels, to escape a rival male or when searching for their prey, they were caught as prey themselves.
Why abandon a kill?
Why would a predator, spend time, energy and effort in finding and killing its prey and then abandon it? Predators usually kill to eat its catch or cache it for another day. At first I thought perhaps the moles were distasteful, but that is not the case as they have several predators( see below) . Then I searched other areas within the ‘killing zone’ and did not find any other dead moles. I noted that each of the dead moles were found sometimes on the paths or just to the side of them. After they were caught, on the surface, they were carried by the stoat or weasel from the scene of the killing towards the footpaths, were the vegetation made it much easier for the predator to carry its prey to cover or a safer place to eat. However as the paths are regularly used by members of the public on foot, or walking their dogs or cycling, this scared the predator which dropped the mole as it made good its escape.
Some interesting mole facts…
Males are called boars and females called sows.
Moles and eathworms
Although moles will readily catch or eat insect larvae, usually in the summer, such as leather jackets, wire worms and cutworms, their favourite prey is earthworms. An 80g mole needs to eat 50g earthworms a day! They actively dig them out of the soil as they make their underground permanent and semi permanent tunnels, sometimes hundreds of metres long! As moles dig tunnels through soft earth, their favoured prey fall into the tunnels and are either eaten by the mole, or after an immobilising bite behind the head sections of the worms, carried off to an underground cache chamber, to be consumed at leisure! One such chamber was found to be holding 470 worms!
They do have natural predators, including tawny owls, buzzards, weasels and stoats. Moles are killed by cats, dogs and of course humans, who regard them as pests, usually using mole spring traps or poisons. Although you can buy mole traps in garden centres, the mole catchers of yesteryear have been superseded by pest control companies.
Unearthing some mole history!
They have been killed for hundreds of years by humans. In fact moles were regarded as vermin and payments were made to people who caught them. Indeed the bounty, for some people, was the deciding factor that made them become professional mole catchers. Mole catchers in some areas were paid a fixed rate of £3.18s.0d by the local parish and generations of family members carried on with that occupation.The price was different in different parishes. Maulden, Bedfordshire, parishioners drew up a detailed agreement with John Hawkins as a mole catcher in 1710 to……
“sett or cause to be sett traps and engins for the taking and distroying all the moles that now digg or cast up moles or earth in any of the lands, meadows or pastures lying within the said parish…and will spread… all such earth during the said terme of six years: in consideration of such works..the parishioners…shall pay unto the said John Hawkins the summe of two pounds and seven shillings and six pence yearly”.
They were destroyed as vermin and believe it or not, for their fur, to make gloves, flying jackets,trousers or coats. A good waistcoat would need over 100 skins. A firm in Wisbech called Horace Friend and Son continued to trade in moleskins up until the early 1980s.
Years ago I used to see numerous dead moles tied to a rope and hung from it in certain parts of the countryside. I never saw the sense in that myself as a youngster.
And the older of you may remember the song by the Southlanders, ” I am a mole and I live in a hole” !!
Refs: besides my own observations and experiences;
Lovegrove, R (2007) ” Silent Fields- the long decline of a nation’s wildlife”, Oxford University Press, Oxford.