The Velvet Underground – Feb 2017

Hello everyone and welcome to a new year in the woods! Well, 2017 began with an increasingly familiar medley of weather conditions. Early January found me stacking Winter fuel in preparation for an Arctic blast that had been promised by the Met Office. As I laboured with the logs, Phoebus shone down, warming the air, and I found myself batting away a selection of mini-biters that were dancing over my head. This unseasonal Gavotte was accompanied by a Robin, perched at the top of a Silver Birch and singing for all the world to hear. The long, protracted song was interspersed with short, staccato bursts of drumming as a Woodpecker took over the percussion section.


As we know, the blast from the North came and went without causing too much disruption to our little corner of the country. In fact, Dear Reader, as I sit here slaving over a hot laptop, we are now halfway through our Meteorological Winter and, thus far, relatively unscathed. It is early days though and I must confess to yearning for a few days sledging!

The mild start to the year has induced numerous creatures, especially among the Feathered Folk, to get on with the business of eating, meeting and mating. The undergrowth is rustling throughout our corner of the country as Blackbirds and Squirrels scuttle through the carpets of dead leaves. High above them, canopies resound to the raucous cry of Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) as they build their treetop communities or Rookeries.

In our little reserve the pond has attracted, along with many other species, a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). Its long tail bobs up and down allowing bright yellow flashes of its rump to signal its position to us on the gloomiest of winter days. Are they all being naively optimistic or do they know something we don’t regarding the second half of our Winter?


If you are wondering when I am going to refer to this month’s rather enigmatic title, then wonder no more. It is not an allusion to a 1960s rock-group with a penchant for Warhol record covers. It is, however, a nicely poetic description of one of our most common, but rarely seen, mammals. You cannot have failed to notice the small, neat mounds of subsoil appearing around the village and along the verge outside Quarry Wood, but how many of you have seen the animal creating these mysterious earthworks? Yes, it is that time of year when our native Moles (Talpa europaea) are most active and busy expanding their vast networks of tunnels.


The soft, thick fur of the Mole has been referred to as velvet for many hundreds of years, as exemplified by the 17th Century Jacobean toast to The Little Gentleman in the black, velvet waistcoat. This was not so much a tribute to Ma Nature as a celebration of the fact that William of Orange died from pneumonia in 1702 – the illness was attributed to him breaking his collar bone by falling from his horse which had stumbled on a molehill.


Exactly a hundred years later, Philosopher, Clergyman and advocate of the Watchmaker analogy of creation, William Paley, wrote his last and most well-known work, Natural Theology, or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature. As the title states, this beautifully-written book uses his perceived perfection of the natural world as evidence of a Creator or Designer. It has been revered and reviled in equal measure over the years, but very few have found fault with the cumulative approach to his arguments or how enjoyable a read it is. Perhaps the highest compliment paid to Paley came from a man whose studies of the natural world took him in the opposite direction to the Clergyman’s lifework. Charles Darwin, born seven years after the book was written, on completing his seminal work On the Origin of Species, wrote to his friend Sir John Lubbock stating that, I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology: I could almost formerly have said it by heart.

Paley’s observations of various animals may not have led him to the theory of Natural Selection but his appreciation of how well they are suited for their environment is palpable in his writing.

The strong short legs of that animal, the palmated feet armed with sharp nails, the pig-like nose, the teeth, the velvet coat, the small external ear, the sagacious smell, the sunk protected eye, all conduce to the utilities or to the safety of its under-ground life.
William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

With these attributes, Moles are, indeed, fit-for-purpose as both Paley and Darwin might have said today. Growing to a mere fourteen centimetres or so in length, they are capable of digging through an astonishing fourteen metres of soil in an hour. The spoil is thrown to the surface at regular intervals, much to the annoyance of those who prefer bowling green-like lawns and, as history shows, royalty who travel distances on horseback.

They work around the clock, sleeping and waking in four hourly shifts. They need to eat continuously and roam their individual network of tunnels, which are at least seventy metres long, searching for beetles, slugs and, their staple food, earthworms. The velvet-like coat has a uniform texture allowing the Mole to reverse swiftly down a tunnel as well as performing rapid turns to change direction. They live a solitary lifestyle, except in the breeding season which is usually from March to May. This may explain the numerous molehills at present as they tunnel further afield looking for a mate. Outside of the breeding season, they will stay clear of each other. Fights to the death will take place if they infringe on each other’s territory, a common occurrence given the power in those clawed, paddle-like arms and the fact that Moles have more teeth (forty-four) than any other mammal in the UK.

Paley’s description of a pig-like nose is in keeping with their gender labels of Boar and Sow. Their litters of two to seven pups (not piglets) grow very quickly, ready to leave the nest and explore the big, subterranean world at thirty-five days old.

Hunted for their coats by the Victorians and hated alike by green-keepers and some gardeners, these impressive animals have defied the odds and are as common a feature on, or rather under, our landscape as any of our familiar plants and animals. In view of the vitriol mounted against our native Mole, let me finish with a seasonal quote about one of my favourite literary characters.

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Any thoughts at

Paul Johnson



Image credits
Img 1: Robin, original Quarry Wood photography by Lorna Neville; Img 2: Woodpecker by hedera.baltica used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Img 3: Rooks by Paul Green used under CC2.0; Img 4: Grey Squirrel_3811 by Robert Taylor used under CC2.0; Img 5: Blackbird by Jans canon used under CC2.0; Img 6: Grey Wagtail by Sergey Yeliseev used under CC2.0; Crowhurst Rec photography Lorna Neville.