Elizabeth Elder: Moles and stockjudging

Just before Christmas, we spotted a couple of molehills which had appeared by the side of the lawn.

Michael the mole man said he would come and deal with it after his holiday. Two-and-a-half months and three feet of snow later he was finally able to make a start.

The snow has accounted for hares, rabbits and a deer on our farm but not moles. Instead, they appear to have been driven into a frenzy of digging. Every day another couple of peaks would be added to the range – so that the lawn ended up looking like a relief map of the Himalayas.

Now the traps have been set and I am waiting for the day that I can look out and see the macabre sight of the guilty moles attached to the fence, like medieval criminals.

Why do mole men do that? It can’t really be effective as a warning to others – moles only appear in the dark and they have bad eyesight anyway. I can’t believe they recce the fences before deciding whether to invade or not.

It seems more likely that the custom of stringing up dead moles comes from the days when the molecatcher was paid by the mole. Now it just seems to be a way of saying either “yes we know we have a mole problem and we are trying to do something about it” or “I am a top molecatcher”.

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth and husband Jake – who have two children, Julia and Archie – farm 235ha of hill ground on the Otterburn Firing Range in Northumberland

They have 520 breeding ewes and 30 suckler cows, and went organic in 2001

Brought up on a dairy farm, Elizabeth is an accountant by training, with a background in corporate finance and business appraisal.  

Bramble, the border terrier, has shown a lot of interest in the molehills, digging enthusiastically into each fresh one. But she never emerges with a mole – just muddy paws. She particularly likes to do this on her first visit to the garden in the morning, followed by a quick sidestep of Jake and a dash upstairs to wake anyone still in bed, leaving a trail of dirt behind her.

Bramble is a bit of a high-maintenance dog but very endearing and affectionate. The thing I find most irritating is the rather embarrassing habit she has developed of hurling herself pleadingly into the arms of every visitor as if to say: “Please take me anyway from this hellhole”.

Very disloyal, Bramble, particularly in view of the recent rather costly gumshield-chewing incident. Not to mention all those hours I have spent outside shivering and calling, as you pottered about oblivious during all this bad weather.

We’re almost a quarter through the year already but it feels like we have been stuck in a Groundhog Day of snow for most of it. Even for us, with the army keeping most of the range roads open (one of the advantages of living on a military range) and having a log fire, the endless snow has been quite spirit sapping.

For people living in some of the high-out places it must have been seriously depressing. Indeed, there is still a thick covering of snow on the hills to the north of us as I write.

When I was in Young Farmers, it always seemed that the people from the more remote places were detemined to get out and enjoy themselves, not put off by adverse weather and sometimes a bit wild. Maybe I am beginning to understand why.

The first social occasion we managed to get out this year for was a stockjudging event held by the North of England Blackface Sheep Breeders’ Association at Hexham Mart.

It was well attended – lots of other people, including families, had shared the same need to break out. It was a good idea to have something like that in half-term when children could come along and have a go as well. You sit around the the ring at the mart and 10 classes of sheep are brought in to be assessed and marked.

It seems deceptively easy – there are only four animals in each class – how many combinations of ABXY could there be?

The keenies stood by the ring to get the best view. We sat in the back row, beside a Swaledale breeder who could give advice on some of the more exotic breeds on display.

We thought we might have an advantage in one class as Jake had helped the owner get them ready. They had concurred which two were the best – the pair with the grey noses (remember kids – the ones with the grey noses).

Unfortunately the judge didn’t agree. Not a good start. The tips on Swales didn’t pay off either.

You see, the secret of this type of event is to tune in to the mind of the judge – you are not trying to identify the best sheep, you are trying to identify what the judge thinks is the best.

I looked at the judge – he had extravagant sideburns but was otherwise quite inscrutable. The only other clue I had was that he was from that wild part of Northumberland between Hexham and Haltwhistle, known as Roman Wall country. They tend to like big things over there so l decided to go for size in the remaining classes.

It didn’t work.

The funny thing was that two of the three highest scores turned out to be from neighbours of the judge. While this doesn’t necessarily prove that great minds think alike, it shows that minds from Roman Wall country certainly do. I wonder if they they know how to sort out moles…

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