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Molecatchers - A brief history

Commissioned by and compiled by N. Jewell MA.
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We know very little about molecatchers up until the 18th and 19th centuries, although we do have some information about their methods - Roman era molecatchers used earthenware pots filled with water as traps, and this method continued up until medieval times. These traps slowly evolved into clay barrel traps made by local potters, but these were too liable to break in poor weather or under a horse’s hoof, and were in turn replaced by wooden traps made by local wheelwrights.[i]

The use of wood liberated molecatchers from artisans, as they could now make their own traps from the materials findable in local copses, such as hazel wood, although clay traps were still used alongside these home-made ones.[ii] Molecatchers, or wanters[iii] as they were frequently known, often carved initials or an identification mark onto their traps.[iv]

Most of the earliest documentary evidence we have for molecatchers in the UK dates back to the early 18th Century.(An atypical very early reference goes back to 1631, when George Soule of Eckington in Worcestershire married Susan Nash and listed his occupation as molecatcher in the parish marriage records.)[v]

We know that some molecatchers worked away from their own homes, moving from farm to estate to farm to ply their trade. The molecatcher was given lodgings at or near the place they were working, supplied with food, AND paid by the mole. He could also sell the moleskins on to make extra money.[vi] At the height of the moleskin trade, America imported 4 million each year from England.[vii] Molecatching was a lucrative business - a usual yearly income was around £50, more than a teacher of the same time, and comparable to a low-wage government worker or police officer.[viii]

Documents show that one molecatcher from the turn of the 19th century, Tom Turner, earned enough to pay £40 for his house – a considerable sum at that time. There's also evidence that poachers would steal traps with caught moles in order to sell the skins for their own profit.[ix]

In addition to the travelling molecatcher, there were also parish molecatchers who worked locally, and didn’t travel, and whose livelihoods were often threatened by the travelling molecatcher. Contractual arrangements to keep estates, parishes and parcels of woodland cleared of moles could last for many years, which assured the molecatcher of reliable and predictable annual income – one of the longest-known ran for 31 years.[x]

Molecatching as a rural skill was very much a family business. Skills, tricks and tips were passed from father to son. Whole clans of molecatchers, such as the Dumvilles, thrived in distinct locations, particularly in the remoter areas, such as the fens or in the north of England. One famous molecatcher in Northumberland, Walter Rutherford, once caught 10000 moles in 30 months.[xi]

Molecatchers were very often distinctive local characters, tramping the rural estates in their moleskin waistcoats. (It took over 100 good moleskins to make just the two front parts of a waistcoat, so these were a mark of the skill of the molecatcher.)[xii] The poet John Clare (1793 -1864), wrote in 'The Mole Catcher' about these characters, centring them in the local landscape and noting the effect of the forces of industrial change by describing them and their work in detail.

The personal relationship between molecatchers and their prey led to great feelings of respect for the mole, the wily little “gentleman in black velvet” (a Jacobite toast), in the same way that any hunter respects and attempts to understand their prey. There was a body of country lore and superstition surrounding the mole – for example, a mole’s feet worn around the neck was said to prevent rheumatism, and a mole tunnel ringing a house was supposed to mean a death in the family.[xiii]

As the Industrial Revolution developed, it became possible for molecatchers to use steel traps rather than clay or wood ones. During the early part of the Revolution, when machinery began to take over the jobs of agricultural labourers, many of these men, now out of work, turned parish molecatcher, as it had become more important than ever to keep the moles down – one reason being that they damaged the new enclosure fences.[xiv]

As John Clare put it (on the plight of the agricultural labourer turned molecatcher in times of increased competition for molecatching services):

“He once could thrash & mow & and hold a plough
Ere he was forced to seek the parish bread
Broke down by age he feels a beggar now
When to the overseers his wants are fed.”

Continued industrial development brought a much greater problem for the molecatchers, however – strychnine. This poison needed no skill in use, and worked out cheaper than paying the molecatcher to trap each mole individually. The molecatcher’s secrecy, and the mystery of his skills, began to work against him – as the molecatchers had kept those skills and tricks within their families, farmers and landowners began to search for other ways of controlling their mole problems. The use of strychnine became widespread, as moles could be cleared in half the time and at half the cost as traditional trapping.[xv] Later, though, some molecatchers such as Rutherford gave up using strychnine, feeling that it was not as effective as trapping each mole individually.[xvi] The use of poison also brought with it some environmental concerns, and, perhaps most importantly from the molecatcher’s point of view, it was impossible for the landowner to see the results in the same way that a display of a line of dead moles could be used as evidential proof of success in mole control.[xvii] Some molecatchers did survive, however, partly due to landowners clinging to older ways, partly due to the molecatchers diversifying into similar pursuits such as ratcatching, and partly due to the continued demand for moleskins.[xviii]

The use of strychnine was banned in 2006, leading to something of a resurgence in the traditional techniques of molecatching and an increase in the number of molecatchers using traditional methods, living and working in both the suburbs and the countryside. It remains to be seen whether or not molecatching, as a trade, will re-emerge at its former levels.

[i] Nicholls, J, Mole Catching: A Practical Guide, The Crowood Press, Marlborough, 2008, p7.
[ii] Ibid, p10.
[iii] Ibid, p8.
[iv] Ibid, p10.
[vi] Ibid
[ix] Nicholls, Mole Catching: A Practical Guide, p14
[xv] Nicholls, Mole Catching: A Practical Guide, p19.
[xvii] Nicholls, Mole Catching: A Practical Guide, p19.
[xviii] Ibid, p19.

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20 facts about the European Mole

  1. Contrary to popular belief the mole is not blind.
  2. Except at breeding time moles are solitary and very territorial animals.
  3. A mole can dig about 30 metres of new tunnels in 24 hours.
  4. Moles eat worms and other invertebrates found in the soil.
  5. Moles have to eat the equivalent of about two thirds of their own body weight of food every day.
  6. Moles find their food in the tunnels they excavate.
  7. Molehills are excess material created by tunnel excavation simply "dumped" on the surface of the ground.
  8. A mole will defend its territory to the death.
  9. The fox, owl, stoat, crow, cat and weasel are natural predators of the mole.
  10. There are an estimated 33 million moles in Britain.
  11. Moles weigh about 120g - 130g with the males being slightly larger than the females.
  12. The gestation period of the mole is about 28 days.
  13. The female mole gives birth in an underground nest, usually grass lined, in one of her tunnels.
  14. The young moles leave the nest to fend for themselves in a new territory at about 40 days old.
  15. Moles live for between three and five years.
  16. Moles can move at speeds up to 2 miles per hour in their tunnels.
  17. Moles occasionally travel overland but only where this is absolutely necessary for speed. Moving overland increases exposure to predators. Often, when travelling, they will make tunnels just under the surface of the ground.
  18. In the labyrinth of tunnels, the mole senses its environment by signals received through vibrissae (sensitive hairs on its face, feet and the tip of its tail) and Eimer's organs (minute papillae on the mole's nose).
  19. The mole has a highly developed kinaesthetic sense (a spatial memory) that allows it to remember the exact layout and precise detail of its entire tunnel system.
  20. Living underground, the mole can survive in air containing about 6% oxygen - about half of the minimum level required by humans.