I am loving my Month in the Country. Our house in the middle of nowhere is surrounded by a silence broken only by birds. Once, a few mornings ago, a barn owl was perched on the sign at the end of our drive as we drove out to the school bus and we’ve found owl pellets underneath the owl box we put up last year. A small herd of deer like to gather in the ploughed field through the trees, and we can watch them from the kitchen windows, and couple of ducks have taken to waddling up between the promises of daffodils to peck at the corn that has fallen through the bird feeder. There have been clumps of snowdrops and a narcissus or two, and winter flowering cherry. There’s very little to do once the housework is done, and none of the distractions of the town. Friends don’t drop in, and shops are a drive away. Every day we pick up a newspaper from the village shop, and anything we need we find in the next village – a butcher, a chemist, a small tea shop crammed with hundreds of tea pots, a fish and chip shop, a Co-op supermarket, an old fashioned ironmongers, an off-licence, a newsagents, a Chinese restaurant (which has been closed down twice), a boutique, a beauty salon with visiting bo-tox specialist, a postoffice, a doctor’s surgery, a carpet shop, a specialist quilting and needlework shop, and a shop selling divine underwear, all grouped around an old market square. The pace is slow and all the older people have gentle Suffolk accents and suffering smiles, and the old ladies still unfold clear plastic headscarves from their handbags when it rains.
We have moles for company. Mole City has pushed up in every area of lawn until the garden around the house ressembles a lunar landscape. Each morning brings another fresh earthy mogul or two, and our mole traps remain unsprung.
Sid has been cutting the lawn here for the last twenty five years. He knows where every stripe goes and every daffodil bulb is. He started out as a boy working at the local hall farm, two miles away, when fields were ploughed with horses, orange Suffolk punches, and he worked in the stables to begin with. He has an abiding mistrust of machinery and this winter his legs have begun to give out. He usually hibernates in winter, but this spring has not woken him up as earlier ones have. Poly-somethingorother which is being treated with lots of pills including a bit white one which he has to take with water on a Sunday and not move for half and hour afterwards. His muscles are all painful. The hormones are giving him hot flushes and he wakes up in the night drenched in sweat. He has good days and bad days and had not been out of the house for a week, but today he turned up unannounced and began inspecting the mole hills and the traps we had set.
I ran out to greet him, and together we went from trap to trap. He raised each one with disgust: this was no way to set a trap. The traps were clogged with soil, unable to spring around anything. There is an unspoken rule between Sid and us. We get to live in our rural idyll and employ him to mow our lawns, and he and his wife get to make fun of us and write off us and our children as lazy-good-for-nothings who know nothing about the countryside. Experts we may not be, but I come from a long line of peasants who in the last thousand years have strayed only ten miles or so, and my roots go down a very long Ango-Saxon way. Over the last few weeks I’ve felt as if I was becoming one with the soil. Still, I was prepared to admit my ignorance of mole traps, and soaked up Sid’s instructions until I had them off pat. I offered to pass them on to my husband, but Sid was truculent: “Don’t you go pinching my job now” he said.
Sid sets out armed with a long bamboo cane and a trowel. He maps a line between a recent mole hill and the one next to it, and jabs in the cane, somewhere about half way along the imaginary line, hoping to feel the hollow tunnel beneath its tip. Having found the mole run, he cuts out a circle of turf about the size of a saucer using his trowel and puts this to one side. Then he uses his hand to push down to the tunnel and to scoop out all the loose earth. The tunnel is usually about two inches below the ground. His fingers work up either side of the interrupted tunnel to make sure the entrance and exit are clear, and then he sets the mole trap. Made of galvanished steel, the scissor trap is set by pinching together the sprung handles and inserting between the claws a mole-sized circle. It needs to face the right way so that the mole running through will dislodge it and be killed by the force of the jaws closing around it.
Sid pushes the set trap into the hole he has made, lining it up with the mole run so that the entrance tunnel, mole trap, and exit tunnel make a continuous line. Sometimes this means inserting the trap at an angle to the perpendicular. Once in place the set-aside turf is replaced like a cape around the arms of the trap, and then, carefully, the soil is used to complete the cap, taking care not to let the soil fall into the hole and block the trap. If the soil is very light, then a plastic membrane, cut out of a plastic bag, can be used to support the soil above. Moles are light-shy and will run around any daylight, so it is imperative that the newly constructed roof is like a starless night sky.
Sid is coming back on Friday, if he is having a good day, to see if any of the traps are sprung. Molecatchers are paid on a piecework basis, by the mole, so I hope all the traps are full. Meanwhile I have to shovel off all the earth thrown up by the busy blighters and hope that these moles like running along old tracks and are not explorers, striking off in new directions.
(Wed am: two traps have sprung. Think Sid would like to be the first to see, so will leave until Friday
Friday: one mole caught, traps re-set
Monday: one mole caught, traps re-set)