by Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

IT’S surprising what you can see in the dead of winter, even on the short drive from Ilkley to Keighley. The first delight came on the Addingham bypass: a couple of hazel bushes festooned with catkins already fully opened, their pollen-yellow lambs’ tails catching the winter sunlight. These bushes are always the first I see – growing in a favoured microclimate, sheltered by steep banks and warmed by the passing traffic. The second sighting was not exactly a surprise; I was already on the lookout. The frost-bitten rough pastures bordering the road to Silsden were patterned with collections of mole hills, several of freshly dug soil.

I am very fond of moles. Their lives are so different from our own that it teases the mind to imagine what it must be like to be a mole. His life is lived below ground, in total darkness. No need for eyesight then. Although he is not blind his eyes are tiny; he structures his world and his behaviour in it by other senses. His sense of smell is good – just look at that well-developed snout – and he has sensitive whiskers and sensitive hairs on the tip of his tail which he carries vertically as he patrols his maze of tunnels, extending and repairing the network and seeking out worms or other prey that have tumbled in. You could say his meals are delivered to his home! He needs to eat almost his body-weight in food each day so stocks up a larder of worms, each paralysed by a bite and stored in a tangled mass in a chamber hollowed out for the purpose. When it’s cold he must burrow deeper, following his prey – hence mid-winter mole hills.

There is no day and night for him so his time is divided between patrols and short naps taken standing upright in his grass-lined sleeping chamber. He is, indeed, superbly adapted to his life: a velvet coat which cannot be brushed “the wrong way” and is quickly shaken clear of soi, and huge shovel-like front paws for digging. He lives a solitary life, keeping well clear of neighbours whom he carefully avoids if he hears them digging close by.

Though most people have never seen a live mole, unless you are a golf green-keeper or a keen lawn-fancier, what’s not to admire?

NB It’s the weekend of the RSPB Garden Birdwatch on 26 – 27 January. Please do take part: only an hour of your time and the vital data store grows and grows.