These two snippets from my book Utterly Undiscovered describe our wildlife lessons as newcomers to the countryside:
Having been city dwellers, it took us a while to appreciate the range of creatures that would turn up on our remote country doorstep. Our idea of wildlife was squirrels scurrying up trees, red deer grazing at the edge of verdant forests and buzzards floating on warm currents off the Stiperstones – all to the background music of some Beatrix Potter movie.
Buzzards there certainly were. Thriving in ideal terrain, their faint miaowing and graceful spirals drawing the eye, they ventured closer each year, especially in winter when foraging in the hills was less fruitful. Near the back door one morning I find a giant specimen perched on a post checking the brookside grass for signs of a decent meal. Disturbed from his vigil, he turns and stares long enough for me to get a rare close-up of his sharp eyes and iron beak, the tools of a survivor.
Of course there are plenty of squirrels, and as well as common garden birds we have goldcrests in the conifers, crying curlews each spring in Geoff’s field and dippers, herons and grey wagtails using the brook.
What we hadn’t thought was that it was also a perfect setting for the squatters of the animal kingdom – mice, moles, shrews, voles and rats – many of whom wanted equal ownership.
Moles come and go. Romany moles. When they arrive it’s like an army has invaded, though it’s normally a lone explorer. I wage war with Mr Mole. I don’t need another range of hills – the Stiperstones are fine. Although we’d sacrificed a lot of grass for Jack’s soccer pitches and made gorgeous flower borders in its place, the idea was to keep the rest as lawn. If Mr Mole chose to build castles and dungeon-runs in the borders – fine. But in the lawn – let battle commence.
It can drag on for days. To make up for their poor eyesight the suspicious creatures have an extraordinary sense of smell and a strong instinct telling them something’s not right. To stay friendly with the NSPCM (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Moles), I started with humane deterrents – a child’s plastic windmill stuck in a hillock or a talking greetings card delivered first class to the entry hole. I was especially hopeful with a card from the “Moles” section in my local Spar shop (just under “Granddaughter’s Birthdays”) saying:
Hello Mr Mole. Please go away. Or else.
‘You do realise moles don’t understand English?’ Debbie said.
I hadn’t thought of that. And having also failed to discourage the little dears with a slow release gas cartridge, I resort to Jack’s country recipe:
One stout wooden stick
Galvanised-iron spring traps from local farm merchants
One pair well-used garden gloves
Large leaves – foxgloves etc
Push stick firmly into raised grass until it goes in without resistance
Repeat in same area to determine direction of run
Excavate neat hole in run, putting turf to one side
Set trap and lower into run, wearing gloves to mask human smell
Place pieces of turf and leaf around trap handles to block out light
The trap now forms part of the run
Set remaining traps in other areas
Check daily to see if traps have been sprung (handles will be released)
It’s hit-and-miss, but always hit in the end. At first the canny fellow teases me, switching burrows, starting new ones or pushing soil ahead to trigger the finely poised trap. But eventually he gets careless. Finding the slain invader means I’ve rescued my lawn. Fair cop – I did try to warn him off. But the victory is hollow. It seems sad that a velvety, perfectly-proportioned, underground powerhouse should have to meet such a sticky end.
Note to self: find a greetings card with instructions in native mole language.
Utterly Undiscovered Out early spring 2013
Fineleaf Editions www.fineleaf.co.uk
Paul Costello © November 2012