Going underground: inside the world of the mole-catchers
A bitter battle is raging within the mole-catching community over the kindest way to carry out their deadly work
Roger Page purchased his home in East Bilney, a Norfolk farming community, about 25 years ago. For the better part of those 25 years, he bore no ill will toward the moles. He was fond of wildlife, or at least what little of it remained in the country. A family of deer foraged in the backyard. Foxes lolled in the road at dusk. Moles were a rarity.
Page worked as a commercial pilot and when the occasional molehill erupted on his lawn, he would pat it down before departing again to New York or Hong Kong. They seemed to have an understanding, he and the moles. They mostly kept to the woods, while Page mostly kept to the garden.
But after he retired five years ago, Page expanded his back lawn and the moles became more persistent. As more and more molehills sprung up, Page came to feel as if their labours were engineered to produce in him the maximum anguish. He purchased traps at the garden centre, but they would often remain unsprung or – worse – sprung and empty.
He decided to escalate his counter-assault. During a stopover in Amsterdam, he bought a pungent bag of flower bulbs advertised as a natural mole deterrent. (The moles didn’t mind.) Next, he installed a solar-powered mole repeller, a torpedo-shaped device that emits vibrations that are supposed to keep the moles away. (The moles carried on.) He tried flooding them out with a water hose. (Moles are strong swimmers.) Finally, he tried suffocating them with the exhaust of his lawnmower. (Moles can survive in low‑oxygen environments.)
Page knew it wasn’t healthy to go on like this. Last September, he found the phone number of a woman named Louise Chapman, also known as the Lady Mole Catcher of Norwich. Traditional mole catching in Britain has experienced a resurgence following a 2006 European Union ban on strychnine, and Chapman is one of many trying to profit from the boom. A former drama teacher, she has been profiled in national newspapers and travelled to Australia in 2016 to be featured in the first season of a reality television show called Deadliest Pests Down Under, where she applied pink lipstick before hunting a funnel web spider. With the help of a business coach, she has also tried marketing Country Mole Catcher™ franchises across the country, offering newcomers to the business everything they need to get started for £7,500, plus a cut of their proceeds.
Chapman is a compact blonde woman, and – when she’s on the job – clad in Wellington boots. When we arrived at Page’s home, she popped open the back of her white Audi estate car and retrieved a bucket containing plastic flags, a garden spade and a long metal rod with a bulb on the end – a mole probe.
We followed Page to the side of his house. There, a ragged strip of lawn about the size of a tennis court lay dotted with patches of overturned earth, each patch spaced every two feet or so. The lawn looked as though it had been strafed by artillery. Chapman walked the length of it, taking note of small details: a crack in the soil, a dead patch of grass, a pile of fresh dirt. She saw herself as an archaeologist who could reconstruct the workings of an underground metropolis based on the scantest traces on the surface.
“I reckon there are three,” Chapman said at last. She gave Page a quote for the work: £80 for the first mole with the price dropping to £60 a mole for two or more. She couldn’t promise to dispatch them on the first visit or even the second one. It could take weeks, but he didn’t have to pay a penny if she wasn’t successful. “No mole, no fee,” they call it in the business. “You’ve already tried to catch them, and they might have got wily,” she warned.
Clients are sometimes taken aback by Chapman’s prices, which she makes a point of delivering in person. Page, however, readily agreed that it was worth it for his sanity, and Chapman got to work. She began by cutting a cube of turf from the roof of the mole run and carefully set it on the ground. Then, she inserted a trap shaped like a fizzy drink can into the hole and covered it with a few clumps of grass. This trap, known as the Duffus half-barrel and first patented in 1920, is based on traditional designs made of a clay or wooden barrel and a horsehair snare powered by a bent stick. In the modern metal trap, a spring-loaded wire loop functions as the snare. When the mole enters the device, it makes it halfway through this loop before brushing against the trigger. The wire loop then accelerates upward, crushing the mole against the trap’s curved roof.
Page was clearly torn between his desire to have an attractive lawn and the violent death he was about to sanction. “I don’t like killing animals,” he said. Chapman, on her hands and knees, looked up from her work. “You were driven to it,” she told him. When she had finished setting traps, she said that either she or her colleague Carole would return “in a few days”.
Chapman tossed off those last words casually, but they represented one of the most divisive issues in mole catching today. Unlike mousetraps, mole traps do not kill instantly and do not always kill cleanly. The world of mole catching is bitterly divided between those who believe that traps should be checked every 24 hours – to ensure that any injured moles are dispatched quickly, rather than being left to die a slow and agonising death – and those who don’t.
Because of the expense of driving out to check an empty trap day after day, opponents of such regulations argue that it would hasten the extinction of mole catching as it has been practised for centuries. “It will criminalise all the mole-catchers,” Chapman says. Britain would be overrun by molehills, which are not only unsightly, but can also potentially spread disease to livestock, trip up horses on race-courses, and ruin golf courses and football pitches. To professionals such as Chapman, such threats appear to outweigh the possibility that a maimed mole or an unfortunate weasel could be squirming in pain beneath someone’s lawn for days.