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Digging Deeper

Brian Alderton peers into a glass-fronted cabinet in his living room and picks up a ceramic figurine of a mole playing a game of bowls on a lawn. As a keen bowls player himself, he says of one of his favourite pieces of mole memorabilia: “That’s me! Moles and bowls.”

His silver hair, tucked up under his tweed flat cap, matches his wispy grey beard and gives him a grandfatherly presence. Smiling warmly he presents an intricate silver brooch in the shape of a mole, imported from America and attached to the collar of his dark brown overcoat.

In the hallway of his modest North Yorkshire home sits a cuddly toy mole with glasses, reminiscent of Mole from Wind in the Willows. Outside the front door is a small statue of a cheery, well-dressed mole holding a sign that says ‘Friends Welcome, Relatives By Appointment’. The car parked in the driveway has a personalised number plate spelling out MOLE. He confesses that he used to have his registration plate spaced differently, to look even more like the word ‘mole’ but the police stopped him and said it wasn’t legal.

Getting into his car he quickly moves some plastic bags and a bucket filled with what looks like a set of particularly nasty contraptions into the boot, and winds down the windows to let in some much needed air. “It’s mole heaven here,” he says as he drives down the country lanes pointing out molehills before arriving at the gates of a muddy field.

But Alderton is not here to admire moles up close; he is here for the hunt. As a professional mole catcher who goes by the name of Mole Man Brian, he’s come to this field to trap and kill the furry creatures.

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Mole catching has found itself under the spotlight due to an ongoing battle over how often traps should be checked. The UK has several large mole catching organisations including the Guild of British Mole Catchers and the Association of Professional Mole Catching. Alderton set up the first organisation, the British Mole Catchers Register, back in 2007 with the aim of training new mole catchers. Is the mole catching community close-knit? Alderton pauses and takes another sip of tea. “It used to be very friendly, but things have gotten very heated,” he says.

“There are knives drawn between the various mole catching organisations at present, which was mostly started by Jeff Nicholls of the Guild of Mole Catchers who is pushing for legislation that would put most mole catchers out of business.”

Nicholls is trying to make it law for mole catchers to check their traps within 24 hours, which many people – including Alderton, think is impossible.

“Once the mole is caught in the trap it’s dead within seconds, so it doesn’t’ matter if you go back within an hour, one day, or a couple of days it’s done, the mole’s dead – it would just make mole catching not cost effective.”

Running a ‘cost effective’ business is something that many mole catchers struggle with, as the going rate for a mole catcher varies drastically between individuals and regions. Alderton says, “There’s vast difference between the north and the south for what people charge per mole. As you go down to Kent a mole in a garden could be £125, £250, ridiculous prices that people pay to catch moles down south. If you’re down there you probably could make a fortune!” He laughs before adding, “But you won’t get me down in London for £1,000,000 a year. No way.”

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Retirement is treating him well. During his prime Alderton caught 5,000 moles a year but now, at 72, he rarely works and happily hands bigger mole catching jobs over to one of his two sons whom he trained to be mole catchers. The shelves in the house that he shares with his partner Sue are full of Lonely Planet travel guides and the pair proudly announces that they frequently go on holiday.

“I was once on a cruise ship in the Caribbean coming down one of the big staircases and this guy says to me ‘Hey, it’s Brian the Mole Man!’” The man had recognised Alderton from one of the many courses he ran for the British Mole Catchers Register.

Once you’re into moles you can’t help but notice them everywhere, claims Alderton, who likens this phenomenon to noticing your own model of car being driven everywhere you go.

“I really admire the mole as a creature,” he says. “It spends all its time underground but when you actually kill it and catch it, it’s absolutely clean and pristine.” Alderton then quickly points out that mole catching is very different to regular pest control.

He says: “I found that in Yellow Pages there’d be 50 advertisements for pest control, but probably only one mole catcher. Pest controllers did mole catching but weren’t as efficient as a professional mole catcher and they charged a lot more because they found it more difficult.”

“It’s very much like would you define a thatcher as a roofer? You’ve got a roofer, but a thatcher is a specialised bit of roofing. And a mole catcher is a specialised bit of pest control.”

Walking through a muddy field probing the ground for possible mole tunnels, Alderton recalls past run-ins with local mole vigilantes. Not everyone is at peace with the killing of moles and Alderton is no stranger to confrontation whilst carrying out his work in the past. Both him and his sons have had traps stolen from graveyards and public bridleways by people who don’t agree with the practice.

Even some of the people who have hired a mole catcher don’t like the idea of killing moles. Many of Alderton’s customers don’t like to see or touch the animal once it’s been caught, and often feel sad for having had them killed. “But they just make such a mess,” he says. “There’s no other way of getting rid of them.”

Chapter Two

Moles have very few natural predators, mostly because they spend the majority of their lives underground. Occasionally, if a mole ventures out of its tunnel system and above the earth’s surface a passing bird or fox could eat it.

Moles feed on earthworms and insect larvae that fall into their tunnels and can eat up to the equivalent of their own body weight in earthworms every day. The earthworms are killed by a quick bite to the head and then dragged through the moles’ claws to remove dirt and grit. Any leftover worms are stored in the tunnels for later consumption.

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Moles generally live a life of solitude, tunneling through the soil alone on the hunt for food, but this all changes every year between February and April – it’s mole-mating season. During this time the male mole (boar) extends his tunnels and digs further afield in search of a responsive female mole (sow), by sending out high-pitched squeals to try to attract her attention. After mating, the female is pregnant for four to six weeks before giving birth to a litter of up to seven baby moles known as pups.

The pups are born naked and blind and spend the first four weeks of their life being suckled by the female. Then, in a dangerous move that often leaves young moles vulnerable to attacks from foxes, owls, cats and dogs, the mole leaves the nest and ventures above ground to find a suitable spot to start digging.

Moles can be found in almost every part of the UK, but some types of soil are more hospitable than others. They like plenty of vegetable matter so it invites worms and enough clay to support their tunnel structures, but not too many stones, meaning a smooth well kept lawn is particularly attractive real estate.

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The trouble doesn’t arise from moles themselves, but the mounds of dirt that appear when they push soil out of their tunnels. The loose soil from the molehills can damage farm machinery and reduce grazing space for animals. The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs have estimated the damage to English agriculture at £5 million a year, yet Dr Rob Atkinson, a mole expert who first studied the creatures during his PhD at Oxford university, argues that moles are not significant pests of any magnitude.

The danger is that if you’re collecting grass from a field for silage or hay where there are molehills then earth can be picked up into the grass clippings. “This can introduce harmful bacteria that disturbs the PH balance of the grass, causing it to rot and become inedible,” explains Atkinson. Another issue is a soil bacteria called listeria, which is a problem for animals such as sheep, as it can cause various illnesses like blindness, miscarriage, and septicemia. The disease can spread to humans from infected animal products. Dr Atkinson says: “It isn’t and it never has been a very serious problem, it’s a million miles away from something like foot and mouth disease, but it can occur.” Atkinson also points out that in Germany it’s illegal to kill moles, yet their successful agriculture industry is very similar to ours.

Molehills, however are a sign of a healthy garden. The moles are attracted to wormy soils, and lots of worms are good for plants. Worms are key to recycling organic waste and turning it into nutrient rich soil. Worms’ tunneling movement helps to percolate water into the soil as well as loosen it to let more oxygen in. This is turn allows plants to root deeper and access a wider range of nutrients, leading to bigger and healthier plants.

The moles are also responsible for good work underground. Soils tend to stratify if unattended, however moles can keep the structure more broken up to prevent too much density and bring up nutrients from down below the surface.

“I never say you shouldn’t kill moles because there are times when you have to. Your flowers might be beautiful but moles are beautiful too. Moles are part of the wildlife of the garden, if you like finches and beetles then why not have moles as well?” says Atkinson.

He says he doesn’t like to kill moles if there is no good reason to, but accepts that it is very difficult to tell someone to tolerate moles if their garden is their pride and joy.

“I know they are quite disruptive but to take a life because it has made your garden look unpleasant – well it’s a pretty wonderful life to take and it’s my job to tell people what that life is.

“Because you never see moles, all you ever see are molehills; it’s very easy to take out that element without really appreciating what you’ve done. I like to let people know that there is a real animal underneath there who is living its own life just as we are and going about its own business.” Atkinson pleads for tolerance of moles, but accepts that he can’t expect people to appreciate an animal they don’t understand.

So will we ever see a time where gardeners are proud to have molehills on their lawn? “That would be nice! I can’t see it happening though,” said Atkinson. “I’m certainly pleased to have molehills and I don’t kill moles in my lawn at all. The world keeps turning and if they are springing up where I’d rather they weren’t I just get a shovel, take the dirt off, throw it away and that’s that.”

Contrary to popular belief, moles are actually not blind – they have tiny eyes hidden in their fur that help them to detect light and have also played a part in furthering research into human eye disease and sight deterioration. Professor Jon Martin Collinson, an expert in Genetics at University of Aberdeen, discovered that the sorts of gene mutations that occurred in moles during evolution might well be the same genetic changes that underlie eye disease in humans. He said: “Moles have cloudy lenses with disorganised lens fibers that look very like human cataract, and also pyramidal-shaped corneas that look very like the human corneal disease, keratoconus.” This means that further research could allow scientists to use moles in identifying disease genes.

A recurring argument for alternative mole removal methods is the idea of being humane. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a mole catcher who takes pleasure in killing moles and most will recall the sadness they felt the first time they caught one. So why can’t we relocate the moles instead of killing them?

The stress from being caught in a non-killing trap for later release can cause moles to panic and often the mole is found dead in the trap by the time they are dug up to be moved elsewhere. If it is found still alive, a mole can be removed and released into another area of land. However, moles are viciously territorial about their tunnels and inadvertently releasing a mole into another’s tunnel can lead to a vicious battle to the death.

Moles work on four-hour cycles, stopping their digging only to eat and sleep. The colonisation of empty, abandoned tunnels is going to be a lot quicker for them, which means that if you have had moles tunnel under your garden once, you are very likely to get them again. However, relocation can cause a tunneling mole to become exhausted and starve to death before it finds enough worms to eat in its new home.

Some methods are used to deter moles instead of catching them. Some people believe that moles can be scared away by vibrations in the soil which will cause them to tunnel in the opposite direction and hopefully straight out of the garden. Homemade methods include putting plastic bottles on the end of sticks in the ground that rattle and send vibrations down into the earth. This myth was quickly debunked by the enormous amount of molehills found along the grass verges on the side of busy main roads.

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A dwindling number of mole catchers use pellets containing aluminium phosphide by dropping them into the mole’s tunnel to poison it. This method has been lamented as ineffective and comes with the added problem of not producing a body to prove the mole has been killed. There are tales of angry gardeners taking matters into their own hands and using a lawn mower exhaust pipe to suffocate the mole with fumes. Poisoned worms are available to buy on the internet to be placed in mole tunnels, but these are dangerous to birds that also prey on worms. These practices are discouraged by professional mole catchers who say traps are the most effective and humane way to control moles.

Chapter Three

“It’s a play on words,” says Louise Chapman, about her brand name the Lady Mole Catcher. She first coined the term in an attempt to poke fun at those who see mole catching as a lowly job for “peasants”. “When I tell people what I do they look down their nose at me because they don’t realise quite how lucrative it is.”

 Standing by the front door of a farmhouse in Norfolk, Chapman patiently waits for her first customer of the day to go inside to discuss pricing with his partner. She has assessed his field and intends to charge him £50 per mole, if he is willing to take her up on the offer. The customer sheepishly returns to decline her request, saying he’ll have to check with his wife and that he will look elsewhere for a better deal. “You will get cheaper quotes than me,” says Chapman. “You’ll have to keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t bring moles from other jobs,” she says, alluding to dishonest practices supposedly undertaken by other mole catchers.

The mole catching industry is full of colloquial expressions like “no mole no fee” and “£10 a mole”, but it is the latter that is of most annoyance to Chapman, who says this is an insufficient amount of money for the skill necessary to catch moles. She cites a lack of proper pricing as to why some mole catchers plant dead moles from other jobs in traps in a bid to charge more.

Chapman, like Brian Alderton, dismisses the idea of checking traps for half-alive moles every 24-hours as “utterly ridiculous.” Despite numerous press appearances and running the British Mole Catchers Register, Chapman says she isn’t interested in getting caught up in the politics of different mole catching organisations. When she first bought the British Mole Catchers Register from Alderton, the organisation was affiliated with the Association of Professional Mole Catchers. Chapman quickly severed all ties, “I didn’t like the politics of it all and I didn’t like the way they spoke to me,” she says. Now her organisation stands alone.

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Chapman is in the business for the money. She has caused a stir in the mole catching community by asking for more money and warning her customers away from mole catchers who charge low prices. “They don’t want to be exposed. One mole can make 30 molehills, and you wouldn’t know unless you know. They don’t want me to give all this information away,” she says.

Leaning over to survey the soft ground for mole movements, Chapman explains that some people think mole catching is a cruel sport, but argues that this is not the case. “Those people generally don’t understand wildlife and that everything has to be managed and controlled, if not it gets completely out of hand,” she says.

Fed up of her job teaching English and drama at a secondary school, Chapman decided to pursue an outdoor lifestyle by undertaking a garden design course at Easton College in Norfolk. Here she stumbled across a mole catching course, “Of course all the other people on the course were men, they were all farmers and game keepers and they were only there to get the license to buy the gas aluminum phosphide,” she says. “I didn’t take much notice of the men on the course. Men are all bloody rude anyway.”

“It’s a good job I’m tough,” she jokes, but it’s not just the difficulty of killing small furry animals that Chapman has to deal with; she has also experienced sexual advances from her male customers. “I’ve had old married men flirt with me,” she reveals. But not one to be easily intimidated, she says: “I don’t feel threatened because I’ve got a trowel in my hand so if he came onto me I’d just crack him round the face.” Her lack of fear is something she attributes to the tough life she has lived and the thick skin she has earned from enduring three divorces.

Being a woman in a male dominated industry has its advantages for Chapman and she thinks her customers feel they can trust her more because she’s female. “A lot of women would prefer to deal with a woman, they don’t want some old bloke creeping around their property talking shit,” she says. When she first took over British Mole Catchers, Chapman was subjected to resistance from some older members of the organisation. Alderton says this is because she is a woman working in a traditionally male role. Chapman brushes off this idea. “He gave all these men the opportunity to buy the business but they didn’t want to, so he offered it to me and I said yes,” she says.

This isn’t a job for the faint hearted. “You’ve got to be able to kill an animal, the trap kills the mole but occasionally you pull them up and the mole is still wriggling in it – and they are quite sweet – but you’ve got to be able to crack it round the head and kill it.”

Chapman admits her first few catches left a bad taste in her mouth but insists it’s just a matter of course. “I’m a big animal lover! I’m not here to distress an animal or hurt an animal,” she says, as she pulls back the metal spring to set another deadly trap.

Louise is on to her tenth and final client of the day, and as she investigates the molehills for new activity her customer asks: “Is there anybody in that one?” whilst tentatively pointing at the newly sprung trap in his garden. “Ah there he is! I’ve been trying to catch that swine for ages,” shouts Chapman. The customer looks taken aback and confesses, like many others, that he feels sorry for the mole that he has just paid to have executed. “You get over it when you realise what they do to your garden,” Chapman says.

Chapter Four

Mouldiwarp

/ˈməʊldwɔːp/

noun

archaic dialect

a mole (animal), derived from Germanic moldeworpon meaning ‘earth-thrower’

Before it was vilified for the dirt mounds desecrating England’s lawns and farms, the mole was thought to be a divine creature in folklore. Some of the earliest records of gruesome rituals used to treat human ailments, often involving the moles’ internal organs, date back to the second century as part of magic practices in Hermeticism, an obscure religious and philosophical tradition.

The mole was used as a cure for common colds and fevers if the afflicted chewed all four paws off the animal and drank the blood pouring from the wounds. German and Hungarian folklore alleged that draining the mole’s blood would cure deafness if applied to the inner ear. Marsupial blood was also thought to clear up skin diseases and the mole’s boiled flesh produced an ointment that supposedly promoted hair growth – both treatments are unlikely to be featured in Glamour’s beauty section today.

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The countless spells and medical cures derived from the mole often ended in a grim death for the furry creature. In ninth century Magyar tradition, a mole’s powers could only be used if you brutally strangled it, or if you plunged your fingers into its body. Biting off the mammal’s head or limbs was sometimes required depending on the intended outcome.

The appearance of molehills in a garden was seen as an indicator of omen up until the 20th century. Molehills in a circle around one’s house signified the death of someone in residence, while more scattered patterns indicated the owner of the estate was due to move house soon.

While these rituals and beliefs seem outdated today, up until the 1970s mole feet were still used as talismans against toothache, cramps, and rheumatism in the British Isles. It was also still popular to carry moleskin purses to bring luck and wealth in the 1950s.

The mole is recognised as a totem in the psychic community, representing a guide to the Underworld and the importance of embracing faith. Matthew James, a professional medium and clairvoyant, says the mole can teach humans how to deal with the uncertainty of the future. “As one of the few mammals that has evolved in the direction of giving away sight, it teaches us that sometimes faith is more important than what we can see and validate,” he says.

Moles symbolise liberating oneself from doubt and having faith in the unknown. James says, “Some animals teach scepticism and doubt, but marsupial moles give the gift of the other side. Too much doubt dilutes our enjoyment of things that we cannot prove or see – things like love, spiritual experiences, even knowing how the future will turn out.”

Mole catching as a trade has an elusive history until the 18th century though there are records of Roman era mole catchers using clay pots filled with water to drown the mammal. In 1556 mole control became policy when Queen Elizabeth passed “An Acte for the Preservation of Granye.” England’s food supply was endangered by frosty winters during the Little Ice Age in the 1600s and the monarchy allocated funds to exterminate an extensive list of agricultural pests that further threatened UK farming.

The law was a catalyst for today’s booming pest control industry, allowing practitioners to specialise in and earn a living from different forms of extermination, including mole catching. Karen Sayer, Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University, says that pest control became such a large sector as part of improved agricultural methods. “As elements of the farming industry specialised, particular pests had greater opportunity to access their preferred food and hosts,” she says. Mole catchers used empirical techniques in their trade, but Sayer says the idea of who was an “expert” began to shift with the introduction of greater education, certificates, and specialised research about moles’ tunneling habits.

The Church began hiring mole catchers during the Little Ice Age and by the 1700s they were employed by every parish in England to keep the population under control. The practice required such a specific set of skills that mole catchers during this time were paid the same as government officials and often more than teachers and surgeons.

Parish mole catchers’ livelihoods were threatened by travelling mole catchers who arranged contractual arrangements to keep parishes, estates, and woodlands clear of the furry animals. These agreements assured the travelling mole catcher a reliable and predictable annual income – one of the longest known contracts ran for nearly 31 years.

Travelling mole catchers lived a life of privilege. Most were given accommodation, supplied with daily meals, and earned their wages per-mole. Mole catchers were distinctive characters, tramping along rural estates in moleskin waistcoats to advertise their kills. The garment indicated a successful career for mole catchers as it took over 100 good moleskins to make a waistcoat.

Early mole catchers earned a deceitful reputation for collecting an additional salary by selling the silky moleskins after their job. At the height of the fur trade, America imported over four million English moleskins a year to construct waistcoats, hats, and trousers. The demand made mole catching a lucrative, sustainable business and led to mole catchers fiercely guarding their trapping methods to prevent competition.

Techniques were passed down from father to son and soon entire clans of mole catchers were thriving in their local areas. Steel traps replaced clay and wooden contraptions thanks to the Industrial Revolution, and as machinery began rapidly expanding and taking the jobs of agricultural labourers, many resorted to mole catching. It had become more important than ever to keep a tight lid on the population with molehills damaging new enclosure fencing on farms and allowing animals to escape.

MOLE HISTORY

The metaphor “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” debuts in William Roper’s biography, The Life of Sir Thomas Moore.

George Soule of Worcestershire is the UK’s first documented professional mole catcher, listing it as his occupation in marital records.

King William III dies from complications after being thrown from his horse that stumbled over a molehill. Jacobites toasted the mole as the “little gentleman in black velvet” for bringing death to their enemy.

Lexicographer Francis Grose writes in his Provincial Glossary that holding a mole until it dies gives the hands healing powers.

Moleskin purses symbolised luck and wealth in the Victorian era.

A few drops of moles blood taken in a glass of water was thought to cure fits of epilepsy.

A goitre, an enlargement of the thyroid, was treated in Cornwall by applying fresh moleskin to the swelling until it rotted.

Queen Elizabeth II appoints Victor Williamson as the first official royal ‘Mole Controller’ for her 20,000-acre estate in Sandringham.

The UK bans strychnine as a form of pest control. The poison is used by Norman Bates to kill his mother in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In the solitary darkness of their tunnels, moles are driven by hunger on a cycle of digging, eating and exploring, only breaking their routine in spring when males exhaustively search for mates, and females raise new-borns in cosy nests. All this activity throws earth above ground, devastating lawns, golf courses, and farms with lumpy molehills.

Even the smallest of molehills can trip cattle, tunneling can uproot crops, and stones thrown up during the moles’ excavation can damage farm machinery. While the consequences of allowing moles to dig freely can be impractical and disastrous for farmers, the majority of those who hire mole catchers are simply seeking to remove the garden nuisances ruining their lawn aesthetics.

For much of Western history, a well-kept lawn, green and neatly trimmed, has represented individual prosperity and shared ideals of communal responsibility. However scientists point to Africa, saying our need to surround ourselves with well-groomed landscapes is a trait instinctive in our ancestors who, thousands of years ago, used the low grasses of the savannahs to detect approaching danger and hunt for prey.

In the medieval days across England and the rest of Europe, tidy grass spaces around castles made it easier for guards and groundskeepers to survey the horizon for incoming enemies.

The origins of the lawn as a landscape design can be traced back to the European Renaissance, where 15th century paintings depict neat grasses on private residences and in public parks. By the 16th century, ornate gardens and lawns graced the land of the elite, especially in England and France. Aristocratic palaces surrounded by trimmed fields and hedges (e.g. Versailles) reflected attitudes about the need for human control of nature through intricately designed and immaculate landscapes.

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The sociocultural history of the lawn is perhaps the strongest indicator of why we hire professionals to kill furry creatures for the sake of a clean garden. The 1989 book The Story of the Little Mole is an endearing tale that sums up the underlying paradox of the unfortunate mammal – we have far more admiration for the mole in superstition and in children’s literature than we do in real life.

Chapter Five

It’s a sunny day at Winchester Rugby Club where a stocky young man in a baseball cap sits fiddling with a Duffus trap. After being forced onto the sidelines following a knee injury and subsequent reconstructive surgery, university rugby player Dan Smith is now investing more time in studying the behaviours of his unusual prey.

“You want to leave almost no evidence that you’ve been here,” he says before poking his metal probe into the soil. “The mole would ask, ‘What the hell is going on?’ if I were to walk all over the runs and flatten the ground.”

The Norfolk native is in his final year studying business at the University of Winchester and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to start his own mole catching business about a year ago. “I printed myself off some business cards,” he says, pulling two out of the pocket of his button up fleece. “My girlfriend at the time did the illustration. I think she was a bit generous with the drawing of my backside – but I’ll take it.”

At only 21, Smith recognises he is an outlier in an already obscure industry. “I’ve never met any young mole catchers, none at all,” he says as he probes the muddy ground for a place to set his trap. “Some people thought it was a joke at first. I posted one of my first catches on Instagram and everyone was like ‘Is this for real?’”

Smith gained his first few customers by walking around his hometown and looking in people’s gardens. If they had moles, he would go and knock on their door to offer his mole catching services.

“I might have buggered this one too,” he says while struggling to set a second trap in the rocky soil. Giving up with the difficult terrain, he drops his trowel and explains that some jobs have proved more difficult than others. The self-described night owl explains how he had to get up unsociably early when setting traps for the local council. “They asked me to get rid of some on the playground so I’d have to lay my traps at 6am before any of the children got there,” he says.

Smith learned his trade on a two-week mole control expedition with his Granddad in Scotland when he was just 13. “My granddad is very much like what you’d expect a mole catcher to be. He lives in the middle of nowhere. He just loves it, he takes the dog out, and he takes a lunch with him. The most he’s caught in a day is 30 or 40,” he says with a fond smile.

“I remember when I caught my first couple of moles. I was definitely uneasy,” he says about his initial reluctance to kill the furry creatures. “I think the third or fourth mole I ever caught was still alive – they make a bit of a squeak. You’ve got to get your stick and whack it on the head. I did feel bad for the mole. But it was suffering and someone needed it getting rid of.”

Smith says growing up with countryside hunting traditions and practicing his grandfather’s trade has shaped his stance on the animal rights issue. “Obviously you get people who are thinking ‘What about the poor moles?’ My mum absolutely hates it,” he says. “Killing an animal is never nice, but sometimes I feel like it’s just a necessity.”

After rummaging through his carrier bag full of trowels and probes, Smith presents a clean, wiry Duffus trap. “These traps are shite,” he scoffs. “The amount of times I’ve pulled them out of the ground and they’ve been triggered, but no moles. They’re worth scrap like 10 pence.”

“This is my favourite trap, it’s called Old Rusty,” Smith says pulling a coppery contraption from his tools. “I don’t name all my traps, just this one. Old Rusty here will get a mole every time.”

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“It was my granddad’s trap, one of the ones he gave me to start out. If you’re lucky you can get two moles at once, it more or less chops them in half.”

He assesses where the culprit of the pitch’s molehills has come from, gesturing to the marsh just beyond the rugby pitch and points out that moles are unlikely swimmers. “If their land gets flooded they come to the surface and swim away,” he says.

Smith doesn’t belong to any mole catching organisations and has avoided being dragged into the debate over how often traps should be checked. He considers mole catching very much a side job or hobby, spending most of his working hours doing bar and restaurant work at the local golf club. “I charge £8-10 per mole,” he says. “Some people charge call-out fees of like £20-30 quid. I’m not doing it professionally so I don’t do that.”

While Smith insists mole catching is not his most important business endeavour, he has certainly educated himself on his prey’s behaviours. “You need to work as quickly as possible,” he explains. “Moles are really sensitive to differences in air temperature. If there’s loads of fresh air in their run they’re going to think a weasel or something has gotten in and they’re going to panic and they won’t come back down that way.”

The rugby club’s groundskeeper, John, teeters past on a noisy, orange tractor before circling back to inspect Smith’s work. “In a way I’m pleased to see the moles, they are indicators that the soil is reasonably healthy. Now the human moles, the miserable rugby players, they’ve cut the pitch to bits,” he teases before riding off.

Despite quarrels over new legislation, dishonest practices, and sustainable pricing, practitioners in the industry are keen to argue that mole catching is a necessity that deserves to be taken seriously. “It happens, and you’ve got to tolerate it,” says Brian Alderton. Not everyone condones killing wildlife for financial gain, and many people oppose mole catching on environmental and ethical grounds. But as long as society is willing to pay for pristine lawns, moles will continue to fall victim to poison and traps. “I never dreamed I would be a mole catcher,” says Louise Chapman. “I just see it as not a bad way to earn some money.”
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