A recent Worcestershire Wildlife Trust tweet about the origin of the word ‘heunt’, an old Worcestershire name for mole, pronounced ‘oounts’ or ‘unts’ in Monmouthshire, triggered a memory from my distant past. Way back in the late 1960s, I sat enjoying a lunchtime pint of Watney’s Red Barrel in the Crown bar with a new friend. The Crown is nestled alongside the narrow and winding Old Hereford Road at Pantygelli, between Abergavenny and Lantillio Pertholy, on the north-eastern edge of the 519 square mile Brecon Beacons National Park, and a mile and a half from my then home.
I remember this particular lunchtime excursion very clearly because I was out on a first date and eager to impress. I had finally managed to coax my new friend out on my new Ducati 350cc motorbike; this was her first pillion ride.
As we chatted and picked at our ‘chicken in the basket’ bar meals, a large man in a flat cap, long raincoat and wellies, opened the bar door and shouted: “Dai Mole at so-and-so farm, John!” I had heard this cryptic call on previous visits to the Crown. “Who’s Dai Mole, John,” I asked the barman. I learned that Dai Mole was a mole/rat catcher and long-time local character whose name was Ted, and not Dai. I had seen Ted many times, sitting quietly on his own at a small corner table, smoking his pipe and nursing a single pint of dark for most of an evening.
One day I found Ted on his own in the Crown bar, with his glass almost empty. I sat myself at his table and slid new pint of dark in front of him. “What’s this for,” he asked suspiciously. “For drinking,” I replied with a smile. We talked about mole catching for the length of time it took him to drink his free pint. All of a sudden Ted stood, downed the last mouthful, and walked off through the bar. He stopped at the door, turned to me, and shouted, “10 o’clock here on Sunday!” I had earlier asked if he would take me out on one of his mole catching trips, but he didn’t seem at all keen; on his way to the door, something had changed his mind.
I rode onto the Crown car park at 9.30am, and waited for Ted to arrive. Within minutes a coughing, spluttering, jingling and jangling, whining and wheezing, hand painted, black Austin A30 van crept slowly across the gravel. The jalopy came to a hesitant halt. After a final pop, bang and soft hiss, the engine died – Ted had arrived early. He was a short, skinny man dressed in a threadbare tweed jacket, a well worn flat cap, dark moleskin trousers, and turned-down wellies. I guessed his age at mid-sixties. A grubby cravat hid his shirt collar and he sported a completely white full beard.
Dark grey oily smoke curled over the rear of his van and met with white steam hissing softly from the engine compartment. A door opened with the creaking squeal of unoiled hinges, to reveal the ghostly figure of Ted, aka Dai Mole, carrying two one-gallon tin cans. Lifting the bonnet, Ted leaned into a cloud of hissing steam to top-up the radiator with water from one can, and the engine oil from the other. I stress here that I’m not exaggerating; the van was a complete mess. Ted didn’t believe in road tax, MOT, or insurance.
“You ready for molein’?” Ted shouted. The passenger door grated against unoiled hinges as I slammed it shut. A hessian sack, filled with spare hessian sacks, squeezed into the metal frame served as my seat cushion. Dai Mole turned the ignition key. A struggling starter motor whirred, grated, and coaxed the coughing and spluttering engine into life. First gear was selected with a worrying crunch. Riding a slipping clutch, we chugged away, ever so slowly, along the Old Hereford Road. The van didn’t have seatbelts. The passenger’s door sprang open at every bump and pothole – baling twin tied to the door handle and around the back of the passenger seat was Ted’s solution to the problem. Ten minutes later we pulled into a muddy farm yard. Ted asked me to wait in the van whilst he had a word with the farmer. An hour passed before Ted’s return. I found out later that he started most mole catching jobs with a full farmhouse fried breakfast, courtesy of the farmer’s wife, and a few pints of cider from the farmer.
Ted put a large wicker basket over his shoulder and we walked through a very mucky farmyard into a field adjoining a sizable rolled lawn next to the farmhouse. The field was peppered with molehills, and a few had began to invade farmer’s lawn. Well trimmed hedges separated the farm fields from the farmhouse.
From his wicker basket, Ted lifted a handful of thin bamboo sticks – each had a white rag tied to one end – and a short metal spiked wooden pole with a two inch diameter knobble at one end. He walked all over the field inspecting molehills, poking his fingers in spoil heaps and rubbing the soil knowledgably between grubby fingers. He took a pinch of soil from another, placed it in the palm of his hand, spat into it, mixed the concoction with a finger, sniffed heavily at it, before finally tasting and spitting out the residue. There was obviously a great deal to be learned from moles’ spoil; I hadn’t the faintest idea what this might be, but I could tell there was important business going down here.
The molehills close to the hedge separating the field from the lawn, were given particularly intense scrutiny and much prodding with the metal spiked stick. At certain places of perceived importance, he pushed flagged bamboo sticks into the ground and muttered “oount runs” and an incantation: ‘Kill they oounts!” More careful inspection and muttering was carried out directly under the hedge. Cautiously, Dai Mole pronounced, ” They oounts be livin’ under thar edge!” As if to confirm his statement, Ted patrolled the hedge once more, stopping now and again to insert the spiked end of his stick into the sod. He did a strange fast stomping dance immediately followed by the very deliberate action of pressing his ear to the knobbed end of his spiked stick. Ted listened intently for the all important underground noises. Every now and again, with an ear still glued to the stick, his face became strained and contorted and, looking skywards, he muttered his incantation: “Aye…kill they oounts!” Finally Ted thought for a few seconds and pronounced with certainty: ” Ooh…ar! They oounts definitely be livin’ under thar edge!”
Dai Mole rummaged once again in his mysterious lidded wicker basket and removed a small, stout ‘T’ handled flat bladed implement, and a small hessian sack containing jangling metallic objects. These he placed carefully on the grass. The sack was opened and a pile of 24 wire implements, similar to that shown below, spilled on the ground in front of him.
Ted dug a small hole in the sod and carefully rubbed soil over each of his wire traps and set them neatly on the ground in pairs, looped end to looped end. Picking up his flat bladed instrument, he cut a rectangle into the soil, 100mm deep X 75mm wide X 200mm long, around one of the flagged bamboo sticks. Carefully, the flag was removed and the rectangle of sod lifted out and placed nearby, parallel to the mole run. After an expert clean-up, a section of the mole’s tunnel was now clearly visible. Ted slowly, almost reverentially, pushed two primed mole traps into the mole’s tunnel. A bamboo flag pole was pushed through the spring loops. The roof of the mole’s run was repaired with soil, similar to that shown in the diaphragm below. The immediate area around the trap was scrutinised for holes that might let light or air into the mole run. The whole performance was carried out a further eleven time before Ted was satisfied that this part of the job was done. Within two or three day, Ted would return to check if any traps had been sprung.
Catching moles was a serious business for Ted; he surrounded the whole process with ceremony. His incantations, mutterings and weird dances suggest that mole catching is a calling requiring practiced mystical skills and hard won knowledge of mole psychology and behavioural patterns. In fact, catching a mole is a straight-forward business, but I’ve no doubt that Ted liked being the local country expert and found a certain degree of pride in the fact that the local community valued him and his services. I know that Ted trapped live moles to secretly transplant at his customer’s farms, close as possible to their houses.
Ted was mostly paid in kind for his services: a breakfast and a few glasses of cider at the start of a job, with further gifts of meat and/or other produce, and perhaps more cider on completion, dependent on how many dead moles he presented to the farmer. I don’t think it was generally known that Ted arrived at a mole catching job with a supply of dead moles, caught elsewhere, just in case the mole haul for that day was not as good as expected. Dai Mole realised the importance of customer satisfaction and made sure he was always able to present at least half a dozen dead moles to an anxious employer. Of course, Ted was not just the local mole and rat catcher, he was also the very keen and cunning local poacher that kept a close eye on the game living on and around the farms he visited.
Moles aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re 99 per cent good. They aerate soil and provide free fertiliser. They eat a lot of grubs, and grubs eat grass roots. Love your moles!
I went out with Ted on many occasions, and he taught me many cool things about the countryside. Each outing ended at the Crown and a few pints – I don’t ever remember him buying. I have not said anything to anyone about Ted, or our exploits, until today – 48 years after the events….
I hope everyone had a good Christmas, and I wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year.