My country life: the mole trapper

After the banning of strychnine, trappers such as Simon Hansell have revived the art of mole catching

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Until the Second World War, the mole trapper was a familiar feature of rural life. More often than not, he would be an itinerant who arrived in the district as autumn slipped into winter. The work was hard, but there was money to be made from landowners willing to pay to be rid of the pests and from furriers wanting the velvet skins.
After the war, things changed. Moleskins were no longer in such great demand. And the man from the Ministry, armed with deadly poisons and gasses, was able to do the job much faster and far cheaper than the traditional trapper.
But the wheel has turned full circle, and the expertise of the mole trapper is back in demand.
The use of strychnine to control the mole population is now illegal. Other methods of chemical control are ineffective at best and inhumane at worst. That and the general trend towards warmer, wetter winters have meant the mole population has exploded – estimates put current numbers at around 40 million.
Moles construct a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that covers acres of ground, and a single mole can dig up to 90m (300ft) a day. Because they are solitary animals, each one constructing its own kingdom, it is not hard to see why many landowners are driven to distraction, if not despair, by moles.
The molehill may be a byproduct of these elaborate excavations, yet these mounds of earth can cause problems. Precious spring grass can be smothered by mounds of earth in a matter of days, summer crops of hay and silage can be contaminated by the bacteria that live in the soil, and machinery may be ruined by stones that have been thrown up.
One of the new generation of mole trappers can be found working the fields and gardens of rural west Wales. Simon Hansell started trapping moles
as a child, and what began as an excuse for avoiding schoolwork became an obsession and later became his profession. “At first I hardly caught a thing,” he says, but inspired by the tales told of old trappers whose catches were counted by the hundred, he persevered. “I decided that I was determined not to be beaten by a mole!”
Even when he started work as a gamekeeper, he still found time for trapping moles. “I couldn’t seem to stay away from them,” he confesses.
The tools of the trade are simple: just the traps, flags to find them again, a prod to help locate the tunnels beneath the turf, and a small spade to dig down to them. Today there are two main designs of traps in use – the scissor (or pincer) version, and the type that Simon uses, the half-barrel. These are carefully sited in the mole’s underground runs; both have a powerful spring mechanism designed to catch the mole around its body when it pushes through. Set correctly, they will kill instantly. And that is an important part of an experienced trappers’ skill. “My job isn’t just about setting traps so they will catch a mole, it’s setting them so they will kill it instantly. I don’t want any suffering. It’s why I don’t use any chemicals or poisons, and why I never have.”
 
Making a difference
Trapping is still largely a seasonal pursuit; the bulk of the work takes place between November and early summer “Sometimes, when the ground is frozen hard, which it has been a lot this year, you can’t work at all. Then it gets really frustrating,” Simon says. So what does a mole trapper do for the rest of the year? “This one recovers,” he jokes. “When it’s busy, it’s hard to keep up, even when you’re working every moment possible.”
Trapping is obviously a tough job, so what keeps Simon going? “I like being able to make a difference. Round here farmers are really struggling to make ends meet. Some are at their wits end, with whole fields ruined by moles. I can give them their land back.”
So is mole trapping an art, a craft, or is it a skill? “It’s not something I’ve really thought about. It’s just how I live. It’s my life and I love it.”
 
Words and photograph: Helen Hansell
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