The truth about Moles
Moles are ruining my garden!
Periodically, usually after rain, there is been an upsurge of 'mole' activity and I have had numerous queries, (as well as many fool proof methods, ranging through snake droppings, exhaust fumes, mothballs, garlic, hair, flooding, urine… the list goes on), as to how to get rid of these so called garden pests. The question is "Why do you want to get rid of the moles?" Invariably the answers are either one or both of the following: "Because they eat my bulbs." or "Because they make a mess of my lawn with their mole hills".
There are in fact two different groups of ‘mole-like’ creatures found in our gardens in South Africa, neither of which are moles at all, namely Golden Moles and Mole-rats. True Moles, Golden Moles and Mole-rats all have streamlined bodies, short limbs and no visible external ears, but there the similarity ends.
A brief biology lesson
Having been weaned on Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Graham's 'Wind in the Willows' and of course, William Horwood's 'Duncton Wood', I have always assumed that the heaps of soil pushed up on my lawn were made by moles. I was thus somewhat stunned to discover that there are no true Moles found in Africa. True Moles belong to the family Talpidae and are found in North America, Europe and Asia. True Moles do push do up mole hills but they are insectivorous. For the rest of this article True Moles can be discounted as they don't come into the South African equation at all.
Golden Moles belong to a distinct family of their own: the Chrysochloridae family. They are only found in Africa south of the Sahara, with most species being endemic to South Africa. Although they look very similar to True Moles, various sources suggest that they are more closely related to elephants, manatees, aardvarks or porcupines than they are to True Moles. Golden Moles, like True Moles, are insectivorous but unlike True Moles, they do not make 'mole hills'.
The Golden Mole eats insects, snails and worms. They have thick, sheeny coats ranging from grey, through brown, to black. Their eyes are covered with skin and the teeth and ears are not visible. Their hind legs are quite small while the front legs and shoulders are more powerful, ending in rather large paws and claws designed for digging. They are solitary creatures, forming raised ridges on the surface of the ground as they burrow in search of beetle, larvae and other insects. The Golden Mole may disturb a plant or two, but does little damage and a great deal of good.
Incidentally, Golden Mole numbers are declining due to loss of habitat to urban, mining and agricultural expansion as well as the predations of both domesticated and feral cats and dogs. Of the 21 species of Golden Mole, 11 are threatened or near threatened with extinction.
Mole-rats also belong to their own distinct family, Bathyergidae. These creatures, like squirrels, beavers and hamsters, belong to the group of animals known as rodents. The common name 'Mole-rat' is an unfortunate misnomer as they are neither moles nor rats, but a species all to themselves.
There are 4 species of Mole-rat in South Africa which vary in size, habits and habitat. For the purposes of this discussion I have chosen to describe the Common Mole-rat which is found across South Africa.
Common Mole-rats have velvety light brown coats, a short tail, small eyes and really large, protruding incisor teeth with which they dig their tunnels. They live in small colonies of up to 14 members and can have a network of tunnels up to a few hundred meters long.
Mole-rats, like most rodents, are herbivorous. This is the culprit that eats our bulbs (and, I discovered, grass roots) and makes the 'mole hills', which often contain a stone or two ejected from the burrow - so beware your lawnmower.
This is an extremely aggressive little creature and is quick to attack, throwing its head back with teeth bared, grunting and squeaking all the while. I once saw one keep our dog, Sandy, at bay for some time. The moment that she got close enough, the mole-rat ferociously bit her on the lip. Her hasty departure was less than quiet!
Carnage and devastation - don't over-react
For the bulb lover, the sight of one's precious Clivias or Cyrtanthus, Nerines or Albuca, their leaves yellowing and plants falling over in all directions, can bring on an attack of impotent fury. Initially, the sight of my destroyed bulbs had me gathering the mess and tossing it onto the compost heap but after a while I came to the realisation that, unlike Man, wild creatures do not normally destroy their own natural sources.
Many of the eaten bulbs can be salvaged. Some bulbs are hollowed out with only the outer parts remaining, (See bottom left of the first photo below). This outer shell, left in the ground, will in time produce new roots, the flesh of the bulb will re-grow and the plant can be saved. Other bulbs may be eaten away entirely, leaving only the stem of the plant with the leaves. As long as the leaves and stem can be held intact, (as in the first photo below), plant the stem directly into the ground. This stem will often produce roots and re-grow as well. I have been able to recover a variety of Albula species as well as Clivias miniata and nobilis in this way. Sometimes only a fraction of the bulb remains, as in the second picture below, a Eulophia speciosa. The bit of bulb and one root was sufficient for the plant to recover. The third photo shows the recovery stage of a Scadoxus puniceus bulb that was partially hollowed out but has now filled out and is producing new roots. The last photo below shows the sudden yellowing of leaves indicating a problem below ground. These were very small Sparaxis bulbs and none of them survived.
Getting rid of Mole-rats
Methods suggested by northern hemisphere dwellers to get rid of True Moles have little or no effect on Golden Moles or Mole-rats – they simply shut off the offending tunnels and shift to a different area of their burrows for a while.
Trying to drown out Mole-rats is impossible as their burrows go down to a meter or more under the ground and the tunnel system may cover distances of well over a hundred meters. Putting garlic down the holes is just a waste of garlic - they eat it. Bottles in the holes - they push them out. Faeces and urine - they couldn't care less.
I have to smile when I am told by gardeners that they have got rid of the 'moles' in their gardens using whatever strange method they have devised. True, the animals may have moved to your neighbour or over the road, but the real reason for this is that they have eaten their fill of what your garden can provide and have moved on to greener pastures. Bear in mind that Mole-rats have very large territories in which they move about, eating bulbs as they go, but returning to these feeding grounds once the plants have had a chance to recover and can once again provide sustenance.
Living with Mole-rats and Golden Moles
Both of these creatures fulfill an important ecological role by aerating the soil, increasing the drainage properties of the soil and preventing over-population of species, be they plant or animal. Perhaps it is best to come to terms with their presence, after all, they were here first. The only solution is that prevention is better than cure – make your bulbs inaccessible, and keep a rake handy to spread out the Mole-rat hills while the soil is still soft and loose.
http://www.givengain.com/cause/2347/projects/12414/ (Endangered Wildlife Trust - Golden Moles)
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/237723/golden-mole (Encyclopaedia Britannica Golden mole)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_mole-rat (Wikipedia Common mole-rat)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_mole (Wikipedia Golden mole)
http://www.afrotheria.net/golden-moles/maps.php (Afrotheria Specialist Group: Golden mole distribution maps)
http://cameratrap.mywild.co.za/2014/03/golden-mole-goodness.html (Remote Camera Trap - South Africa: Golden Mole goodness)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mole_(animal) (Wikipedia: Mole (animal))
http://www.arkive.org/mole/talpa-europaea/ (Wildscreen Aktive: Mole (Talpa europaea)
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Cryptomys_hottentotus/ (Animal Diversity Web: Cryptomys hottentotus
http://www.ewt.org.za/TGSP/mole.html?gclid=Cj0KEQiAkJyjBRClorTki_7Zx8QBE... (Endangered Wild Life Trust: Threatened Grassland Species Trust)