Moles, fortresses and Jacobites

Moles are very rarely seen as they spend most of their lives underground. They are stocky animals, with a wedge-shaped body and short tail. They use their spade-like paws to dig tunnels and hunt for their favourite meal of earthworms. They also like to eat underground grubs that would usually feed off crops, so moles can help to control unwanted visitors.

By digging up the earth, moles help make the soil healthier by aerating it. This allows more types of plants to grow, which in turn feed more insects. Not only this, their tunnels improve soil drainage, which helps stop flooding and huge puddles forming on the ground. Moles truly are the unsung heroes of the animal world!

A mole can dig up to 20 metres of tunnel in a day using its spade-like forepaws to effectively breaststroke its way through the soil. Every now and again, loose soil is pushed up to the surface, resulting in what we see as a mole hill. The mole’s velvety coat helps it to move easily through the soil, and its mouth and nose are protected from debris by their down-facing position.

Tarmacking and increasing numbers of hard surfaced gardens mean that moles are being pushed out of their natural habitats. Why not help green up the grey by making your garden a home for wildlife?

Whilst you may think that moles will hibernate through winter, this isn’t the case. Their main tunnels and nesting burrows are far enough under the frosty surface that they are able to still be active during the cold winter months.

The vast majority of molehills are relatively small and without internal structure. On occasion, though, moles construct large and structured mounds containing upwards of 750 kg of soil. Fortresses are commonly found in areas with a high water table which are liable to flooding. When the waters rise the mole can retreat from the waterlogged tunnels and take refuge within the fortress. There it can remain, dry in its nest and sustained by the stores of worms, until the waters recede. Fortresses also feature in shallow soils lying on a hard substrate.

Moles prefer to make their nests deep in the soil where temperatures are relatively stable and for most of the year rather higher than at the surface. Moles living in thin soils cannot dig deep nests and a fortress may offer a degree of insulation to the mole asleep in its nest. Fortresses are built with the soil excavated from tunnels that would have been dug anyway but there is a considerable extra cost in moving this large quantity of soil to one central point. (from The Natural History of Moles, Martyn Gorman and David Stone).

In early March 1702 King William III of Orange died after he was thrown from his horse when it stumbled on a molehill while he was riding near Hampton Court. The king suffered a broken collar bone in the fall and died a few weeks later after bronchitis set in. That deadly mole became revered amongst Jacobites and, on March 8th each year on the anniversary of the King’s death, a toast ‘to the wee gentleman in the velvet jacket’ became common place amongst Jacobite supporters, a nod to their underground assassin.