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  • Title: How to catch a mole
  • Author: Marc Hamer
  • Genre: Literary non-fiction
  • Publisher: Greystone Books
  • Pages: 208

In the heart of aristocratic London, a short walk from the palaces of several royals, is a reminder of how the highest can be brought low by the humblest.

The statue in St. James Square of a mounted King William III features, under his horse’s left hind leg, a molehill. For it was digging by a mole – a tiny creature that is fearful, solitary, bad-tasting and nearly blind – that caused the horse to stumble and throw its rider in 1702. Sixteen days later, the king died of complications of pneumonia, his line extinguished and the throne passing to distant relatives.

Long after, Jacobites whose preferred monarch was defeated by William would still occasionally toast “the little gentleman in velvet.”

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Today’s moles are more likely to be the bane of gardeners than kings, but their single-mindedness should not be underestimated. They dig and dig and dig, turning crops to weeds and undermining whatever might be on the surface. Which is why, in the time since Britain banned the use of strychnine to poison moles, the ancient talents of catchers have been sought again.

This is how Marc Hamer has made a living. He spent years trying to get into the heads of moles, figuring out how to outwit the wary creatures and trap them in their multitudes. Until the day he found himself battering one to death and realized he couldn’t do it any longer. But more on that later.

After reading this book one can’t help but feel that, much as gardeners may not like the presence of moles under their ground, they should at least have a healthy respect for the diligence and smarts of the creature. Mr. Hamer certainly does. Though in the style of such books, this isn’t really about moles. Moles are just his way into paean to walking through nature.

That said, you will learn a lot about moles reading this book.

Moles can sense when their tunnels are breached by the rush of fresh air and will immediately start shifting soil to block the intruder. The blood of a mole can hold more oxygen than that of other animals – a fact that may be of interest to dodgy sports doctors. Moles have powerful front paws with two thumbs on each side.

More bizarrely, moles have learned to benefit from an idiosyncrasy inherent in earthworms. The latter creatures can grow back a lost head, but cannot dig during the weeks this takes. So in times of plenty, moles will decapitate large numbers of worms and store them – a helpless source of food – in an alcove off their tunnel. This is common enough that Mr. Hamer says those in the trade call these “worm larders.”

At times, though, readers may rightfully wonder if folklore is blurring into fact.

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For example, Mr. Hamer writes that female moles are actually hermaphroditic, having both ovaries and testes. When ready to mate, their testosterone production drops and they develop a vagina. After giving birth, testosterone ramps up and the vagina closes up.

This description is attributed by Mr. Hamer to something he has read – there are no footnotes – but his source seems to have led him astray. When consulted for this review, neither an official with the Guild of British Molecatchers nor an expert at the Royal Ontario Museum would vouch for this characterization.

Although he may founder on certain factual ground, Mr. Hamer is uniquely suited to write this story.

He tells of being kicked out of his home when he was a teen and spending 18 months walking around Britain, sleeping in hedgerows and scrounging for food. It was during this time, terrified on a pitch-black night, that he learned the cough of a sheep sounds just like the cough of a human. It was also this period that seems to have set the tone for his life.

After interludes working for a railway and attending art school, he became a gardener and mole-killer.

While working, Mr. Hamer’s days were spent out-thinking moles and tending to the rural properties of wealthier people. His thoughts in the field strayed often to his wife, Peggy, and anticipation of a whisky. But he also shows a keen appreciation of the nature he was immersed in, the nature he was part of.

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While the writing may be too lyrical for some, he displays an excellent turn of phrase. He describes sleeping on the ground after a day of walking as a youth as dissolving into the earth and the night. The mole’s body is likened to a velvety sausage.

Going after these moles earned him money in the off season, but is an odd pursuit for a person with his ethics. Mr. Hamer believes that all living things are equal and that by killing something else he was killing himself, making his choice of job slightly jarring and a decision that never really gets unpacked.

It was the day he battered to death one of those velvety sausages – using a trowel to finish the work of a trap that failed to kill – that he decided to quit. It was one of the few times he’d had to kill directly and it left him angry and yet strangely grateful. That mole had freed him. It was time to stop.

Other mole-catchers presumably picked up where he left off but, as Mr. Hamer well knew, humans will never win this fight. “It is mole territory,” he writes early in the book, “they will always be here.”

Editor’s note: October 19, 2019: A previous version of this story misspelled the author's name in the headline.

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