The mother of invention

There is something strangely appealing about the common mole. Indeed, she (and in France moles are generally thought of as female) has enough appeal to make her a fairy-tale favourite amongst children. Apart from her beautiful black pelt she is actually rather ugly with her protuberant fleshy nose, over-large pink front feet and silly short tail. When fully grown she could sit in one’s palm, although actually, she would never stay still. She spends most of her time living in darkness, moving around in a complex set of underground passages which she designs and builds with domestic flair. Her subterranean facilities include a toilet, a nest, a food store, a grazing area and tunnels leading to escape routes. And, like the perfect child, she keeps herself to herself.

But Mrs Mole has another side to her character. She is also a menace, at least according to farmers and gardeners who classify her as vermin. Moles are not mischievous, they just happen to undermine the land where they live and, when they come to the surface, they pepper it with their tell-tale molehills. In so doing, they can wreck carefully-prepared lawns, tennis courts or cricket pitches and destroy the root systems of plants, undoing weeks or months of horticultural endeavour.

One morning four weeks ago a mole declared that she was in residence beneath our vegetable patch in Brittany. Every morning I pay an early visit to our patch to see if anything has happened overnight – slug invasion, caterpillar nibble, onset of blight. On this particular morning all the plants were there, many even a little larger than they were the day before, but beside a bean plant I found a freshly-dug mole hill – the first of the season. Ugh! Last summer Mrs Mole was under the lawn, this summer she would be under the vegetables – and that spelt trouble.

It is notoriously difficult to get rid of moles. Gardening books, websites and old-wives tales are full of suggestions, but whatever I have tried in the past has failed. Metal traps, chewing gum, olive oil and various poisons have not worked. A neighbour’s cat has sometimes helped, but he himself is difficult to control and has other allegiances. Loud music and flooding still remain a possibility; prayer will be given a miss.  One problem for me now is that, having been subjected to persuasive arguments on green ethics, I feel duty-bound let Mrs Mole live. My job is simply to persuade her to leave.

Overnight, in a eureka moment, a solution came to mind. Why not put sharp stakes into the ground? I had some spare metal pegs, rather like giant staples, that I had used for holding down netting and they would do perfectly. If Mrs Mole were to dig towards the surface and scratch her nose or toes, surely she would head off somewhere else.

I placed my first ten pegs strategically around the most recent molehill in an attempt to protect the plants nearby from another invasion. When in place their tops lie flat on the ground making them virtually invisible. Next morning there were no signs of overnight mole activity and, buoyed by this outcome, I went to my usual gardening centre to buy more pegs. In fact, I also had to go to a second shop to buy enough for my endeavour. Within no time over seventy pegs were in place around the various beds.

It is now three weeks since the experiment started and it has worked. Yes, there have been two new hills in the plot itself, but they have been in its empty parts far away from my ‘warning’ stakes surrounding anything vulnerable. Interestingly, a new escape exit has also appeared on the far side of the allotment wall.

I felt quietly proud of my achievement, a feeling that reminded me of a particular aspect of my career in science. For years I had discussed with colleagues what exactly it was in research that gave the most pleasure. We all agreed that it was the discovery of a new fact. We were, however divided as to the importance of the process of the discovery. For many colleagues the pleasure was from using a new technique that allowed them to probe where no one had been able to look before. We named the process ‘pushing the decimal point’. For me, what gave most pleasure was gaining a new insight by simply looking afresh at a problem that had been around for years. My peg system for controlling moles could have been developed hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, but from my reading of the literature this was a first. My trick to combat Mrs Mole’s labours was therefore particularly satisfying! And it was Mrs Mole who had been the inspiration – the mother of invention. Perhaps she might now be inspired to use her carefully prepared escape hatch.


Photo: Mrs Mole gives Joe the slip. [Wikimedia Commons, Stefan Didam – Schmallenberg]

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