Sunday, July 12, 2015

A bit of natural history of moles

There are an estimated 35-40 million moles living in the UK, most of them in my garden.

The European mole Talpa europaea is continental immigrant but a native of the UK. They are up to 150mm long, males weighing 110g and females around 85g.

Moles are usually black or very dark brown but other colours are not uncommon and range through orangy-brown to grey, cream and silver.

Living underground, moles don’t follow day-night patterns of activity. Instead they work for four hours and then sleep for four hours, repeating the cycle all through our day and night.

But moles are not blind: they are light sensitive but their eyesight is poor. And they do have ears but these are internal, located behind their shoulders, so a mole’s nose and throat send sounds towards them.

They build a nest about 1m underground and often store headless earthworms in it for times when the ground is flooded or frozen.

Moles feed almost exclusively on worms in the winter but half their summer diet is insect larvae. They eat around 20 per day or half their body weight.

Males and females are solitary, apart from in the mating season in spring. Then, males go looking for females. They usually have one litter a year with between two and seven babies born, after a four-week pregnancy, in April and May.

They leave the nest after four weeks and then, after a few more weeks leave for good to find territories of their own.

This natural history of moles ought to give me some idea of how to catch, deter or dispose of these unwelcome pests.

But I feel I need to check out mole catchers first. What does this profession have to offer? Perhaps it has prospects!

We're fighting for a share of our first ever apricots

I love apricots but it's too cold and wet to grow and ripen them in the UK, right? Wrong!

There are plenty of people now doing this - and even on a commercial basis. The Daily Telegraph reckons that 2015 will produce a bumper crop for UK apricots. And it's a landmark year for us too.

We planted a tree in our sun terrace in 2013 and this year, for the first time, it is bearing fruit.

The variety was called Goldcot - developed specifically for the UK with a later flowering period, so helping the tree to avoid any late frosts which would destroy the blossom and stop any fruit setting.

It did actually flower briefly in 2014 but no fruit set. And this year the blossom was out fairly early despite the variety, blooming in a sunny spell in early April.

But again, it didn't last long as after a few days, a wet and windy period blew it away. It did, however, allow a couple of dozen fruits to set, with a little pollination help from me and my paint brush.

These grew quickly - much faster than other garden fruit - and by late May were already turning yellow-red, although even now, in mid-July, they are hard as bullets.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped the blackbirds pecking them.

These birds had been indulging in their annual cherry fest until I "sleeved" the cherry trees with horticultural fleece, held in place with clothes pegs. That was the theory any way.

Wind and the feathered fiends routinely undo the fleece to reveal more ripening fruit. This year the blackbirds - about 10 or more of them - have also brought in hired muscle in the shape of three adult crows to help them plunder our crop. At least the magpies haven't joined in. Yet.

They're also on the tayberries which I've partially netted to save some for us, and the summer fruiting raspberries which I've abandoned for the year. We've got plenty in the freezer from last year and we'll get autumn fruiting raspberries in September and October.

As far as the Apricots go, I've now fleeced them up too, determined to get some fruit from them. There are about 18 or so fruits left - enough for a taster - but they could take another three to four weeks, so fingers crossed.

A late Father's Day present - a scarecrow called Dave - may help.