The Little Gentleman in Velvet (Instalment 16)
“Up we go! Up we go! Till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.”
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Musgrave Bridge seems like a good place to search for signs of otters. Naturalists look for their distinctive droppings, which they call ‘spraint’; they say it has a pleasant aroma. Needless to say I didn’t find any; even otters’ faeces elude me. I need to try harder – or take up fishing. The River Eden veers off under the bridge skirting north of Little Musgrave, a tiny village just over a kilometre west of its bigger sister. It remained out of sight as I drove northward along the lane to Warcop. I often drive along here as it offers a very pleasant alternative to the life threatening pressures of heavy traffic on the A66 to Appleby. It’s an attractive lane where several of the farmers still lay their hedges in the traditional manner and consequently support a diversity of wildlife appreciative of the shelter afforded by a properly maintained hedge.
There is no better livestock-proof barrier; unlike a wire fence, it can be induced to improve and renew its impenetrable structure for hundreds of years and also has the potential, like an elongated corridor of compressed woodland habitat, to create safe cover and passage for an abundant mix of wildlife. Once a hedge has been allowed to grow to a sufficient size, the accomplished hedger starts by cutting away the branches on one side of each tree, in line with the hedge. Each stem is cut through at its base leaving a hinge of sapwood and bark to ensure it goes on growing and then laid down, on its branchless side, at an angle close to the hedge bottom. It is essential they are not laid too horizontally as some upward slant is needed to allow the sap to rise up the plant. Westmorland purists put in a row of wooden stakes along the middle of the hedge as they proceed, weaving the stems between them and leaving well-shaped, specimen saplings at intervals to mature into trees.
I have often caught glimpses of stoats and weasels and smaller mammals like voles and mice scampering from one side of the lane to the other. Identification of plants is tricky from a car as is the once in a while splodge of feathers, which might be the remains of female pheasant but, more distressingly, could be a tawny owl hit by a car at night.
A very long line of moles’ corpses, suspended from the top strand of barbed wire on the roadside fence along here, had intrigued me for ages. In passing, always in a hurry, I’d estimated there might be fifty but this time I stopped and counted ninety seven. They present a pathetically bedraggled spectacle: much more Damien Hirst than Andy Goldsworthy, complete with dripping blood, flies and maggots. I do admit to a slightly anthropomorphic tendency; Winnie the Pooh, Rupert the Bear and Wind in the Willows were all a seminal influence in my formative years. I still identify with Winnie the Pooh’s naive “bear with a small brain” observations of the rural world, Rupert’s surreal adventures in the English countryside and that intrepid trio, Badger, Ratty and Mole, doing their valiant best to cope with the naughty Toad. They all inhabit recesses of my juvenile subconscious as I try to assert an acquiescent adult perspective in the face of a grimmer reality.
Unlike the gentle Mole in Wind in the Willows, real moles are aggressive little beasts and ravenous hunters, sometimes killing and eating their own kind during territorial disputes. As everybody knows, they spend most of their lives underground and mostly eat earth worms, consuming the equivalent of their own body weight in a day and keeping a winter store of hundreds of worms, with their heads bitten off to keep them fresh. Fifteen centimetres long and weighing only one hundred grams, moles have phenomenal strength for their size and can shovel over four kilograms of soil in twenty minutes with their wide, powerful front paws. They have tiny eyes but very sensitive noses for finding their way around and their soft velvet fur enables them to move backwards, as well as forwards, with ease.
Inhabiting a complex system of tunnels connecting sleeping quarters, breeding dens and living chambers, their excavations necessitate, when they are close to the surface of the ground, regular pushing up of displaced soil through vertical tunnels forming conspicuous heaps of spoil in the process. It is mainly the displaced soil, of course, that upsets the farmers and I don’t deny that molehills can cause problems by contaminating silage, hay and other crops and reducing the available grazing for sheep and cows. There are some benefits too because moles aerate the soil, eat harmful agricultural pests such as leatherjackets and slugs and, to the delight of amateur archaeologists, their spoil heaps sometimes contain shards of ancient pottery and flint arrow heads.
I just wish mole catchers could resist hanging up their gloating, decomposing displays of sad little corpses. In the nineteenth century they were able to sell mole pelts to the clothing industry and four million were exported to America annually; one hundred pelts were needed to make the front of just one waistcoat. The humble little subterranean digger also enjoyed a moment of glory in 1702 when the protestant King William III, who had previously deposed James II, his Catholic Father in Law, died following an accident when the horse he was riding fell over a mole hill. Catholics everywhere raised their glasses in a toast to “the little gentleman in velvet”.