Speaking up for moles

Winter 2018 Newsletter cover

The article below (how appropriate, considering the subject, don’t you think?) appears in the latest issue of The Quarry Farm Newsletter. Download your copy by clicking on the cover to the right.

Not long ago after autumn rains had softened the baked lawn around Red Fox Cabin, little volcano-shaped mounds erupted here and there, heralding the arrival of moles. Moles don’t alarm me because their burrowing hasn’t seemed to cause lasting damage in the garden. However, convinced that the humans on a nature preserve should be knowledgeable about their fellow inhabitants, I went online to learn more about moles.

Members of the family Talpidae, moles are found in most parts of North America, Europe and Asia. Seven species live in the U.S., the Eastern Mole being common in our region. They are 5 to 7 inches long, larger than shrews and voles. Males are called boars; females are sows; and the young are pups. A group is a labor (perhaps because they are so industrious?). They are carnivores, not herbivores. Their diet is primarily earthworms, grubs, and the occasional mouse, but not our garden plants. Once they have eaten the food in one area, they move on.

Moles are amazingly adapted to a subterranean life. They can distinguish light from dark but not colors. Although their eyesight is dim, their hearing and sense of smell are so acute that they can detect prey through many inches of soil. They have large, powerful, outward-pointing front legs and claws for pushing dirt aside as they “swim” through soft, moist earth. They are able to disappear from rare ventures to the surface in 10 seconds flat, to tunnel 1 foot in 3 minutes and to run through established tunnels at about 80 feet per minute. Their short, velvety fur is non-directional, causing little resistance as they move rapidly through tunnels. (Their soft, dense pelts once supported a thriving moleskin industry.) Moles can survive in their low-oxygen environment underground because they can tolerate the high carbon dioxide levels in the exhaled air they reuse. Their saliva paralyzes prey, which they store, still alive, in underground “larders” for future consumption. Moles can detect, capture, and eat their prey faster than the human eye can follow.

Moles make 2 types of tunnels: feeding runways close to the surface where the molehills pop up and permanent tunnels about a foot or more underground, leading to a nest about 2 feet deep. What might look like the work of many moles can be the product of one busy tunneler.

Moles are solitary and highly territorial, coming together only to mate. Breeding season runs from February to May. From 2 to 5 pups are born after a 1-month gestation, and leave the nest 30 to 45 days later in search of their own territories. Although tunnels may overlap, moles avoid each other and will attack and even fight to the death when they meet.

Many online gardening experts write about moles in terms of their being destructive pests that must be eradicated. They suggest many methods of doing so: poisons; traps that choke, spear, slice or confine for removal; buried repellants like broken glass, razor blades, or thorny branches; or natural, more humane repellants like plantings that smell bad to moles (daffodils, alliums, marigolds, castor beans, etc.), castor oil drenches; and reducing lawn watering that could force moles close to the surface.

However, I lean toward a smaller set of gardening experts represented online who believe that moles are more beneficial than destructive. Rather than taking offense at molehills, they point out that moles improve soil by loosening, aerating and fertilizing, and the cones subside quickly. Any soil that has been lifted off roots can be pressed down again with a foot. Moles receive the blame for plant damage caused by chipmunks, mice and voles, and generally receive little credit for destroying lawn grubs. I myself would rather let moles eat pesky soil-dwelling larvae than chase moles out by spreading harmful poisons to kill the grubs. In the view of one expert, Roger Mercer, “Moles aren’t all bad. In fact they’re 99% good.” As a 15th century saying goes: “Do not make a mountain out of a mole hill.”

—The Gardener at The Quarry Farm

good morning

This morning before work (so sometime between 6:30 and 7 a.m.), Anne came in as I was going out. Well, intending to go out. She wouldn’t let me leave, wanted to show me something.

And she did.


Welcome, then, to this little chick; the first live domestic birth here on The Quarry Farm.


Not tomorrow, but today

We’ve been away for awhile–not in body so much as in mind.

For the past few days, the sky has loomed gray. While the temperatures were in the 30s (Fahrenheit), the air was heavy with wet, the kind of damp that soaks into your tissues and no amount of blankets will chase the chill away.

The cold hasn’t stopped the morass of mud all around The Quarry Farm. While quilts and jackets kept us warm, the animals burrowed under Bridenbaugh straw. A few northbound red-winged blackbirds showed up this week to promise that spring is close. Then these vernal signals went silent, too.

It was like that earlier today. Then the sun came out a few minutes ago. And happily, so did everyone else.

It’s the little things (that show you care)

Here on the farm sanctuary of the Quarry Farm, you all know by now that we have chickens. Of those chickens, four are roosters. One rooster, Sid, doesn’t count because he is fancy and that keeps him docile and slow-moving. Bernie, Jeff and Ralph are birds of a different feather altogether.

These three probable Rhode Island Reds have three different origins that shall remain a mystery to us. But all three will live their lives together in the paddock with Buddy the miniature donkey and Nigerian dwarf goats S’more and Marsh. Sid has the roam of the rest of the place where he is tolerated by the hens who can easily out-manuever  him. The three other roosters have an easy truce between themselves as long as the hens keep out of the paddock. And when no one is in there with Mr. Shovel.

Unfortunately Mr. Shovel must make an appearance every morning in order to remove the donkey, goat and rooster leavings from the previous day. Bernie, the original rooster, does not care for Mr. Shovel. Nor does he particularly care for the person who is wielding Mr. Shovel.

If you have ever been spurred by a full-grown rooster, you know it results in white-hot searing pain that bleeds like nobody’s business. The kick that accompanies the spur usually leaves bruises. I myself actually suffered my first severe ankle sprain after a confrontation with Bernie. Since chicken dinner is not on the menu here on the farm sanctuary (so don’t even go there) I have learned: A) not to wear bright red around Bernie; B) keep Mr. Shovel between myself and Bernie; C) make sure Ralph is keeping an eye on Bernie.

At first Bernie was very friendly, but sometime during the course of the second year he became aggressive, mostly with me. Steven claims it is because I wore a bright red rain jacket around him. The jacket went to Goodwill, but Bernie still came after me every time my back was turned. So Bernie was banished to the paddock so he wouldn’t go after anyone else. That helped until he took a dislike to Mr. Shovel. Enter Ralph.

Ralph came to live with us about two years after Bernie did. He was adopted with a group of hens, all unwanted by an Allen County landowner. So as to give the hens here a relatively stress-free existence, we put Ralph in the paddock, too. Ralph and Bernie duked it out for a while and Ralph came out on top. Jeff joined the fray some time later the same summer. Ralph remained the dominant rooster, so much so that Bernie’s comb diminished and he became quite tame. For about a season.

This spring, Bernie again decided that I am not to be trusted and indeed am to be chucked out of the paddock at every opportunity. But Ralph doesn’t feel that way. My little red-combed savior will keep himself between Bernie and me, even driving Bernie off to the far corner of the paddock. Ralph will also break up private trysts between Jeff and a hen named Barbara, but that’s a different story.

Just a few minutes ago, Ralph came to my rescue again. After posting this, I am going to take him a slice of yellow squash.

By the way, the photo of the horned worm has nothing to do with this story. Steve took this last week as these voracious creatures were being hand-eradicated from the tomato patch at Red Fox Cabin. I just thought it was a cool shot.