Molecatchers have been using traps to control moles for hundreds of years, These have varied in design, operation and construction. They all however have one thing in common - the end result was the same - a caught mole.
Most modern traps are made from steel, with the occasional plastic device appearing in mail-order catalogues. Steel may seem the ideal material from which to construct a device to catch a mole. After all, mole traps will spend most of the time in soil and be subject to whatever the elements throws at them. In the bid to outwit the mole, trap makers have, over the years, produced a variety in style of trap made from a variety of materials
Molecatchers often made their own traps, or had them constructed by others with traditional skills such as potting, bodging (wood turning) or wheel making (wheelwright). At one time, trap making was a large commercial industry. Mole traps traps appeared in many forms but most had similarities in their design and operation.
Here, the Guild of British Molecatchers shows a small collection. We travel in time to look back at some of the old implements used in the battle with the mole.
The old ways
One of the earliest materials used in mole trap construction was clay. The trap being a clay pot buried in the ground in a mole's main run. A wooden trapdoor was placed on the top of the clay pot through which the mole would fall as it scurried along.
The pot was part filled with water in which an exhausted mole would eventually drown. A small hole half way up the side of the pot prevented it from filling completely with water from rainfall, the mole being an excellent swimmer may escape from an over filled pot. These pots were obviously not a humane method of controlling moles their existence indicates that the battle to control moles has taken place in the shires of Britain for many centuries.
These clay pots would have been used as far back as the roman dominance - through the medieval period and are known to have been used right up into the 19th century in some areas. These pots were not the implements of molecatchers, they would have been mainly used in pleasure gardens and grounds by those employed to maintain them
It was not until the 1700's that smaller more practical traps were used, still constructed from clay, augmented by the remains of other crushed pots referred to as grog, they were an adapted clay drainage pipe. Many of these clay barrel traps as they became known, were made by the the local potters in the villages that the molecatchers worked, Some molecatchers knew how to make their own from a mould. One of the famous mole catching families from Tingewick, Buckinghamshire, the Turner family, employed the use of these clay traps and each trap was marked with the molecatchers initials.
Here an example of one of these clay traps bares the initials RT and was used by the father of Thomas Turner, probably the most well known of the Turner molecatchers. It would have been used at the end of the 1700's.
In these traps the clay formed only the body of the trap - they still needed to be powered to restrain any mole that entered. This was achieved by a bender stick; a hazel or willow stick thrust into the ground and bent over to provide the means of holding the mole in one of two snares that were fixed to the bender stick and set at each end of the trap body through one of the holes.
The centre hole was used for the most important part of the trap then and now - the trigger that would release the power of the bent stick. This important piece of the trap was nothing more than a peg of thorn. Blackthorn or hawthorn - cut and plugged into the centre hole. Each mole trap having been individually made would require a peg that was also individually cut to fit and therefore an item that required looking after carefully.
When setting these traps it was important not to misplace the triggers so the molecatcher would hold them in his mouth from which any conversation would have been mumbled, hence the trigger pieces became affectionately known as mumble pins, a name still in use today to describe the part of a mole trap that "springs" the trap.
Clay barrel traps had an internal circumference groove at each end to hold the snares in place and the underside of the trap body contained a V-shaped cut to allow the removal of caught moles.
The clay trap on the left dates from the 1870's and was made in the potteries of W Meeds and Sons in Burgess Hill Sussex. It has five holes on the top, as opposed to the three found on the earlier clay trap and was made from a smooth clay.
Clay traps enabled molecatchers to travel around the local parishes and, often, countrywide offering their skills to catch moles. Commercial enterprise such as this meant greater demands were placed on the traps and since clay traps were subject to damage from frost, hooves and cart wheels, the molecatcher soon realised the need for a better, stronger, more resilient material from which to construct traps. They found it - timber - Elm to be precise.
Elm is not only strong but also resilient to moisture. It was used to construct the hubs of wheels on carts. Molecatchers knew just the person to make the clay trap into a barrel of wood - Wheelwrights. Every village had one and they copied the clay barrels providing the molecatchers with not just a better trap body but also a trap that could be powered by a steel spring.
The strength of the trap body enabled a steel spring to be stapled to the top which resulted in a more compact and easily transported trap. The mumble pin, instead of releasing long bender sticks, held control over powerful springs, these traps were made by molecatchers themselves and still often displayed the molecatcher's initials. Molecatchers, in a bid to save cost often cut the wooden barrels in half to produce two traps.
Here the trap has been cut in half and two wire loops used to provide a means of supporting the trap in position in the moles run. These became known as the Half barrel traps.
Further development or measures to save cost by molecatchers led to the traps being made with flat tops. Simple flat blocks of wood instead of the rounded. Molecatchers around the United Kingdom had their favourite; many adapted these to suit their own needs, the flat top trap was not new despite the addition of a steel spring. Molecatchers disliked parting with hard earn cash and often continued to make their own traps and even continued to use bender sticks to power home made wooden traps.
These wooden traps were flat topped and had hazel loops which held the snares.
These traps whether wooden full barrel or half barrel, flat top spring powered or flat top bender stick powered all had similarities. These similarities are still seen in the traps used today.
It is clear that very little has changed in the design of mole traps or the principles used to catch moles in many years
Wooden traps in the form of home made traps were still being used into the 1950's powered by springs. Bender sticks were still being used in the early 1900's. In fact probably even later.
During the Victorian era, wire works mass produced traps for animal control and mole traps featured high on the list. The favoured trap was the scissor trap, most manufacturers having their own small variations in the design. Concern for the welfare of the target species was un-important; providing the mole was caught, little else mattered.
During this period one trap appeared on the market that was different - the Impassable or the Slayer. It was the invention of two Cornish men in 1888. William Reed from Dunheved iron works and a farmer, James Lawry. The trap was a spear or guillotine trap and they actually produced three models.
The Impassable or Mark1 can be identified by the ring which is welded to the top of the spring rod whereas the Mark 11 has the top of the spring rod formed into a circle. The Mark 11[a] is slightly smaller.
Some trap manufacturers soon gained a good reputation. None more so than Fenn, famous for various types of trap they also produced not only their own design of scissor mole trap, but also two forms of a loop trap. Not that far back in the pages of history but worth acknowledgement here.
Probably the most famous of mole trap and still commonly used today is what the Guild of British Molecatchers describe as the trap of the British Molecatcher - the metal half barrel trap.
Known to many as the DUFFUS trap. It was invented in 1922 by Scottish shepherd and molecatcher, John Newton Duffus, who along with his sons, designed a mole trap that was to begin with no more than a wooden barrel with two small metal springs on the top which operated independently. It developed into a half barrel trap which is still used today, and copied around the world. In 1958 John Duffus sold the patent to another Scotsman, David Jolly, who continued to make the traps by hand, Many believe they have an original Duffus trap because the Name J Duffus & Sons is stamped on the sides. However David Jolly kept this logo on the traps. Today, around the world, copies of this trap are made and sold. This is a trap that will always have a place in the pages of mole trap history.
The most frequently used traps today
For centuries, as we have seen, molecatchers have used some form of trap to control moles. These have, and still do, vary in shape, size, type and in the way in which they capture the mole.
Readily available modern traps offer a selection that those needing to control moles can choose from. It is important to understand how these traps work and how they despatch the mole in order to decide on which would be the best to use.
Many modern molecatchers will talk of their particular favourite. However for the novice molecatcher this first step can be the hardest.
For the novice molecatcher, favourite traps tend to be the trap found easiest to set, the one that caught their first mole or, perhaps, one they found in the garden shed. The trap in the garden shed is that strange piece of metal hanging on a nail when they moved in. No knowledge of what it was for, until a few weeks later piles of soil mysteriously appear all over the lawn!
On most occasions, the trap on the nail in the shed is the scissor trap or pincher trap as this is the mole trap most commonly found in garden centres and other retail outlets.
The scissors trap is easy to set as it has the advantage of leverage in two large trap arms which can be squeezed to open the trap jaws and these are then held open by inserting a mumble pin. The trap springs are now under strain held by the mumble pin or plate until the mole pushes into the pin and displaces it. In releasing the mumble pin the springs return to their original position which will close the jaws around the mole.
These traps have changed very little since the late 1800's when they first began to appear in the trap makers catalogues. Changes in the shape of the jaws or the trap springs have been made by various manufacturers but the action of a scissor motion has remained the same.
Another trap readily available (and possibly the trap that is most favoured by professional molecatchers) is the half barrel trap. This trap has a metal tunnel shaped body which houses two spring powered loops that operate independently of each other allowing the trap to capture a mole from either direction or, occasionally, two moles in one trap.
The half barrel trap was invented in the early 1920's and is considered by many as the the most versatile of all the traps currently available. It can be set in any depth of run and most locations where a mole may be found.
The gripper trap is not a new trap although it has only recently become more available being sold under the name of Talpex. The gripper trap was available in 1933 and the new trap is a modern interpretation of that original. It was originally made in Leicestershire by the Gripper Manufacturing Company and sold at 12 shillings per dozen. It was also available in America at two for one dollar or 12 for 4 dollars.
The original gripper trap had a rounded top like the current Out o' Sight trap (sold in the USA) whereas the Talpex is square. The old gripper had a plate as a mumble pin that operated in the same way as the plate in the scissor trap to keep the open jaws apart until the mole pushed through it. The modern equivalent is triggered slightly differently.