Mole-catching: a dying art?
For years, Peter Brown earned a living from the ancient art of mole-catching. But, following an EU ruling, he’s facing extinction. We look at the arguments – to trap or to poison?
Angry: Peter Brown protests at EU laws
To farmers, moles are not harmless creatures: they’re pests.
The soil they push to the surface gets into grassland silage fed to cows and sheep in winter months, potentially contaminating meat and milk with listeriosis bacteria.
Which is why, until recently, 87 farms across the North of England paid Peter Brown to rid their fields of moles using the poison strychnine.
Moles: a problem for farmers
But when the poison was banned in 2006, Peter, 55, from Shaw, near Oldham found his livelihood in ruins. Meanwhile, mole infestations are on the increase.
"I admit strychnine is a very deadly poison so I’m not mithered about them banning it," he said.
"But my issue is that we’ve been allowed by government bodies and licensing authorities for over 60 years in this country to use it well and legally.
"They’ve banned it’s on health grounds so what I'm saying is, give us the evidence: proven human deaths from strychnine and what actual damage it’s done to the environment."
The EU ruling outlawed a 60-year practice, previously approved by the government, of using earthworms laced with strychnine as bait.
"You’d go to where the newest runs were, probe between the molehills and drop in a run," explained Peter.
"You then hooked a dead worm up and place in the bottom of the run. Then every four hours, along comes the mole to eat up the worms that have dropped in."
The Guild of British Molecatchers is quite clear on its views on the use of strychnine to kill moles. Its website says the poison has been 'banished to the pages of history – where it belongs!’ But what are the alternatives?
How Peter's story has been reported
Jeff Nicholls is a Guild member who uses traditional trapping methods and has campaigned against the use of poisons on the grounds of animal welfare.
"Strychnine was used because it was cheap: cheap and nasty and dangerous to use," he said. "A modern kill trap, used properly, can kill a mole almost instantly. Strychnine causes terrible convulsions and takes up to half an hour to kill. And that’s just not acceptable."
He agreed that the mole population was increasing but added that what was needed was more mole-catchers trained in humane methods.
Ironically, trapping moles - rather than poisoning them – is how Peter Brown started as a mole-catcher, selling mole pelts for a shilling a time.
It wasn’t until much later that he took it up professionally after a back injury he sustained as a grave digger for Oldham Council.
He now works two days a week for Rochdale pest control and five days on a farm in South Yorkshire but says that trapping moles costs three times as much as using strychnine and is far more labour intensive.
"I can trap moles but I can’t do it when I’ve to travel these distances. But how can you kneel down in wet ground for seven months of the year even with knee pads? How long before your knees go? I’m 55 years old."
Adding: "I do feel sorry for the mole because I’ve been a grave digger and I’m amazed that a little animal can so push up so much soil. It’s a shame but when it’s costing the farmer up to £2,000 in antibiotics because of listeriosis, then it’s got to be controlled."
Peter is now claiming compensation of £10,000 a year for lost earnings but is unable to take his case to the European Court of Justice because he’s not eligible for legal aid.
So, after years of correspondence with EU officials complaining about the ruling, he’s taken his fight to the Stockport office of the MEP Chris Davies.
Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West, replied saying he was not convinced that moles had to be killed.
"Strychnine was taken off the market because it is not safe to use. And I am not going to support a product that is demonstrably dangerous.
There are many mole catchers who make a good living using humane methods and I see no reason why Mr Brown cannot do the same."
last updated: 19/02/2009 at 16:59