Will Stonehouse, Moles & Rabbits

The snowflakes were falling heavy and wet a couple weeks ago, so I think Will was glad to take a break with us in a warm kitchen and a cup of coffee, to chat about his outdoor pursuits, after a cold morning up in the ‘heeds. It was great to catch up with him too: Will and I worked together behind the bar at Allendale Village Hall quite a few times, over the years, and he was scheduled to be there again for the May Fair Fund-Raising Christmas Dinner as well.

But we were eager to learn more about moling, in particular. Will recounted that he’d learned how to trap moles from Reg Dover, and he put his lessons to good use on the family farms at Peckriding and Churchlands. From there it was on to the next farm, and then the requests just snowballed. So now, Will’s countryside life is measured out according to the seasons: from late autumn until about the end of May, which is when the mole breeding season starts, he’s out and about trapping moles in all weathers. You have to identify the mole runs, so as to place the trap that humanely dispatches the scurrying creatures, covering it over with earth. If the fields are covered in a layer of snow, it’s that hard to find the tunnel runs, so then Will’s attention turns to rabbits.

Most of the rabbits he catches (sometimes with his ferrets) are taken straight to the game dealers like Ridley’s in Acomb. In the late summer time, Will is busy with beating (first for grouse on the West Allenheads Estate, and then for pheasant on the Whitfield Estate). Throughout the year he’s also actively trying to dispatch grey squirrels, though the only profit in that, these days, is the satisfaction he has when he sees the reds scampering about. In the autumn he picks as many berries as he can find, especially after the first frost, and sets them steeping in gin or vodka for his Allendale Spirit enterprise. He was cheerfully selling his wares at the late night shopping event in the Co-op earlier this month.

Sunday nights Will can be found behind the bar at the King’s Head. He loves it there too, catching up with folks, just as he loves working outside. Will has consciously tried to stay working on the land, in outdoor activities, which he does throughout Tynedale now.

We talked at length about moling though, as Will has a great deal of respect for the survival capacity of these industrious creatures. If they didn’t make such a mess of the fields, he says, they’d be tolerated. But if the mole hill earth should get caught up in the silage harvest, then that risks listeria contamination and therefore listeriosis for both cattle and sheep. So not only do moles destroy grazing habitat, but they also put animals over-wintering at risk too. Farmers are delighted to have their fields cleared of moles before late spring, when they can harrow down the prominent mole hills, leaving hay meadows to grow on smooth ground.

Will says that if you can keep on top of the moles, embarking on an annual exercise to reduce the infestation, then the fields will be much easier to manage. But a field left to the moles can see a dramatic rise in fecundity; Will’s current record for mole clearance on one farm is 855 moles over the course of several months! And those pesky creatures, especially if the field is surrounded by woodland or fell ground, somehow manage to re-populate the territory over the course of the following year.

Since molecatchers typically charge per dead mole on farmland (Will’s fee is somewhere around the £3-4 mark, but he charges per visit for garden clearances), the farmer usually likes to see the evidence for what they’re paying for. Hence the traditional practice of hanging the corpses on barbed wire. Will says he usually finds a convenient place away from the road, so there’s no stink or bother. But foxes, badgers and crows will take fresh corpses off the fences, so he has to keep a tally himself too.

The farmers know how to reach Will, as his reputation has travelled well by word-of-mouth, and he notes that the farming community is always good for the invoices he produces after his work is done.

He was off to balmy Acomb later the afternoon after our chat, so he pulled on his water-proof gaiters over his boots and after a quick inspection of the continually developing Elf Hole, where some of our festive season will be taking place, and with a cheerful wave, he was away into the great outdoors again.

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