Tag Archives: mole

Profile: Moles – perfectly adapted

They are one of our most common and widespread mammals, but few people will ever see a live mole. I think this is a shame, as they are fascinating creatures, perfectly adapted for their subterranean lifestyle. I haven’t yet seen a live mole, so don’t have any photos to show you. Luckily my friend Moley has agreed to help show you what makes moles so great.

Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground

Talpa europaea, the mole we get in Britain, is surprisingly small in real life, usually between 11 and 15 centimetres long, with a short tail.

Moles are insectivores, and have a long, pointed, mobile nose like hedgehogs and shrews. The sensitive hairs on their noses help them to detect food. Their favourite food is earthworms, bit will eat other insects (and sometimes other small creatures as well).

Sight isn’t all that useful in dark tunnels, so moles have tiny eyes (1mm across), but they can tell the difference between light and dark. This may be to help them detect when intruders break into their tunnels from above.

Moles don’t have external ears (presumably because they’d just fill up with mud).

Moles are usually dark furred, like Moley. But as colour doesn’t matter too much in dark tunnels, other colours (like white or light brown) are not uncommon. Their fur is short, velvety, and can lie flat in any direction, to help them back up through narrow tunnels.

Digging is what moles do best. Their powerful, spade-like front paws help them shift lots of earth quickly. A mole can dig around 20m of tunnels each day. Moley, being bigger than most moles, assures me he could manage 30m easily.

There is less oxygen in the air of underground tunnels than above ground. To make up for this, moles have more blood than other similar-sized mammals, and twice as much haemoglobin (which carries oxygen in the blood).

Moles leave obvious signs of activity, creating mole hills from the spoil from their tunnels. This makes them unpopular with gardeners, but unless you’re tending a lawn for competitive bowls, croquet or tennis, I can’t understand people wanting to kill moles. It’s easy enough to rake the molehills away.  Their tunnels also help aerate the soil.

Moles spend most of their lives below ground, but they do sometimes come up to the surface. Your best chance of seeing one is in June, when youngsters are heading off to find their own territory. I hope that I will get to see one someday.



There are some things you can’t plan…

I’m a planner. I like making detailed plans, based on thorough research. This works for seeing some animals: working out where to go and when, and what to do when you’re there. Others you can’t really plan for –  you need to be lucky.

So far in my British Animal Challenge I have focused on animals I can more or less plan to see. I have done my research, and gone to likely places, (as with water voles) or, even better, joined in surveys to find them (as with newts). Of course, even going to places you know the animal frequents doesn’t guarantee you a sighting (see my water shrew and otter attempts).

But there’s a whole host of creatures who can’t really be pinned down like that. Take, for example, the mole. I can’t plan an expedition to see a mole. It’s going to take luck for me to ever see one. I can look out for molehills, and spend time in likely habitat at the most likely time of year (when youngsters are dispersing), but ultimately it will be down to luck. (I was very jealous when I read FoDrambler’s post about seeing a mole, thanks to a dog – maybe I should get one. Fat Cat would never forgive me!)

When I was looking through my British Animal Challenge list, working out how to see every type of British animal, there were some where my conclusion was I’d just have to spend enough time in the right sort of habitat to eventually see one.

Stoats were like this. They are not particularly rare, and quite widespread, but going out deliberately to see one may be tricky. So I was delighted to get a glimpse of one as it dashed across the road as we drove in Dorset. Stoats, like otters, badgers and weasels, are members of the mustelid family. They have long, thin bodies, and move with the flowing gait that seems unique to mustelids.

My glimpse of stoat reminded me of the value of just spending time in wild places, even if I’m not on a particular mission to see something. You never know what will cross your path.

British animal challenge: insectivores

Having set myself the challenge, I now need to work out how to see every species of British animal in the wild. This post is the first of a series I have planned, looking at how to see the different groups of animals, starting with insectivores.

As the name suggest, the 7 species in this group (hedgehog, mole, common shrew, water shrew, greater and lesser white toothed shrews, and the pygmy shrew) are insect eaters. I like to think of  them as the Wombles group. They all have, long, pointed, sensitive, mobile noses to help them find food, just like the recycling residents of Wimbledon Common. Apart from the spiky hedgehog, they all have short, dense, velvety fur, which, at least in the case of the mole, can lie flat in any direction to help them move backwards and forwards through tunnels.

Hedgehog and hoglets
Hedgehog and hoglets

Regular readers to this blog will know that hedgehogs are already ticked off my list, as they are regular visitors to our garden. I’ve also seen pygmy shrews foraging in dormouse boxes (although I haven’t got any photos of them yet). So that leaves the other 5 species to find.

This challenge is still new to me, so I haven’t quite worked out the rules. I have seen a wild mole, but sadly it was dead. Does that count? Similarly, I’ve seen dead common shrews. It will be much more satisfying to see them alive, so they stay on my list of species to find.

This may be quite tricky. Moles are one of the most common British animals, but, as you know, they live underground, and don’t come up to the surface often. The internet’s not much help on this – a quick search for moles in the UK brings up a long list of exterminators, but not much useful advice for watching them. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of moles, but no snouts pointing out of molehills. It’s not really the sort of animal you can ‘plan’ to see. The best time to look may be in June or July, when the young moles are dispersing above ground to new territories. I’m just going to have to keep an eye out in places with signs of mole activity, wait and hope for a lot of luck…

Common shrews live up to their name: there are estimated to be around 41.7 million in Britain. Despite this they may still be difficult to spot. Like all shrews, they need to keep active nearly 24 hours a day all year, as they need to eat at least 80-90% of their own body weight in food each day. Apparently listening out for their high-pitched squeaks can help you spot one, but again it will involve making sure I spend lots of time paying attention in the right sort of habitat.

Water shrews, while rarer than common shrews, may be easier to spot. The key is finding a nice stretch of unpolluted chalk stream, with lots of bugs for the shrew to eat. Watercress beds are another good place to look. This may call for a trip to the watercress beds of Hampshire, as although the River Mole goes through the chalky north downs, it’s pretty polluted.

The greater and lesser white toothed shrews are going to require travel a little further afield. The greater can be found on some of the Channel Islands, and the lesser is found on the Scilly Isles (some call it the Scilly shrew). I’ve never been to the Channel Islands before, but this seems like a good excuse. Going to the Scillies will be no hardship, since it’s my favourite place on earth.

Now I just need to find time to do all this… It’s starting to look like it could be a full-time job, if only I could find someone to pay me to do this!

Do you have any suggestions of good places to look for water shrews?