Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Making Mountains Out Of Moles

So...your lawn is looking amazing.  The grass has just been manicured...it looks like an immaculate green carpet out there. You couldn't be more proud of the kingdom you survey. Suddenly, you start to notice little piles of earth being pushed up around your pristine lawn. The ground becomes soft and uneven in places. Where there was once perfection, little brown piles now punctuate your sea of green, taunting your obsessive compulsive side. This means war! How can I get rid of these damn moles!

But before you begin, its important that - in the words of Sun Tzu - you know your enemy.

The first thing you should know is that (if you live in South Africa) there are no moles in your garden.

"But wait!" I hear you say, "I'm definitely not imagining this mess in my garden." Thats true, but moles are not native to Africa. They are a resident of North America, Asia and Europe. What you are actually seeing in your garden is one of either two groups of mole-like creatures that are found in Southern Africa - Golden Moles, or Mole Rats.

Take a look at this cute little Golden Mole (picture credit)
Golden Moles are a distant relative of the hedgehog, and are mainly insectivores, with a predilection for termites. They range in size from 8-20cm, and are covered in a moisture and dirt repellant, black/grey/yellow fur. Their eyes are non-functional, and their ears are just tiny holes, so their sense of touch is highly developed to the point where they can feel termites and other insects nearby. Golden Moles are generally solitary creatures, and can travel great distances (up to as much as 6km in the case of the Grant's Golden Mole) in search of food.  Sadly, 11 of the 21 species of Golden Moles are now threatened with extinction.

Mole Rat caught pink handed (picture credit)
The name Mole Rat is a misleading title, as it is neither a mole, nor a rat.  It is possibly a closer relative to a porcupine. They're herbivores, and enjoy munching on bulbs and grass stolons. Very often eating but not destroying the bulbs that they feed on. They tend to live in family units of up to 14 individuals. Their tunnels are quite extensive, and can go down as much as a 80cm below the surface. Tunnels have been found to be as much as a kilometre in length. They can be quite grumpy little creatures if they are cornered, so take care when handling them.

The second thing you should know about these 2 groups of creatures that we have up till now been mis-calling moles, is that they also perform an important function of aerating the soil, improving drainage, and essentially tilling the soil from underneath.

Thirdly, and most importantly, based on my experience, it is very difficult to get rid of mole rats in particular. I have employed most of them - sonic devices, spinning plastic coke bottles, garlic solutions, urination (not me personally), Jack Russells, and I'm sad to say that when I was younger I even used pesticides. None of these solutions have worked for more than a couple of months, and most didn't work at all. Pesticides seemed to work the best, but you have to weigh up the long term damage that you are doing to the environment. The chemicals are highly toxic, heavier than air and will poison the groundwater, all the surrounding soil, and in the process killing off all the life in the soil. In the long term your grass and plants will end up suffering, as the symbiotic relationship they have with the myriad organisms in the soil will be destroyed.

There are 2 solutions that I have as yet not tried. The first is the use of wire mesh. This involves, essentially spreading galvanised wire mesh over the entire area about 15cm below the surface. The problems with this option are that the wire mesh would have to have a tiny aperture to prevent the moles from squeezing through, it would be quite an expensive option especially for larger areas, and there would be nothing stopping the mole from walking along the surface, and burrowing into the newly fenced off area. But it still may be a good option worth exploring. I would imagine the key would be finding the right depth for the layer of wire to be spread out at.

The second solution is in my opinion the best. At one point I heard about someone who traps moles/mole rats/golden moles alive, and then releases the animals back into the wild far away.  I was never able to get hold of his details. I would have been happy to send him lots of work.

At the moment, the advice that I most often give my clients is more of a remedial one. Prior to regular mowing, any mole hills, and and any surface tunnelling, should be stamped down.
Then during your annual top-dressing, the loose soil can be stamped back down, rolled and then top-dressed to deal with any minor unevenness.
This essentially gives the lawn a fresh start, but the moles will still be there and will eventually work your lawn back to its previous bumpy self.

As with most garden problems that come about from our attempts to control our environment, I believe the best mindset is to work with nature and not against it. The Japanese have a way of thinking called Wabi-sabi, which essentially means embracing imperfection. Something we obsessive compulsive westerners would do well to learn.

Embracing the unevenness, the weeds, the creatures, the yellowing leaves, the non-linear and the imperfect is so hard for us to do, but says so much about our need for control of the world around us. I wonder if it is an outward sign of an impossibility that we expect of ourselves and others around us.
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