Very little is known about Molecatchers until the 18th and 19th centuries, although we do have some information about their methods
Roman era molecatchers used earthenware pots filled with water as traps, and this method continued up until medieval times. These traps slowly evolved into clay barrel traps made by local potters. These were too liable to break in poor weather or under a horse’s hoof,
The use of wood liberated molecatchers from artisans, as they could now make their own traps from the materials found in local copses, such as hazel wood, although clay traps were still used alongside these home-made ones.
Molecatchers, or wanters as they were frequently known, often carved initials or an identification mark onto their traps.
Some molecatchers worked away from their own homes, moving from farm to estate to farm to ply their trade. The molecatcher was given lodgings at or near the place they were working, supplied with food, and paid by the mole. He could also sell the moleskins on to make extra money. At the height of the moleskin trade, America imported 4 million each year from England.
Molecatching was a lucrative business - a usual yearly income was around £50, more than a teacher of the same time, and comparable to a low-wage government worker or police officer. One molecatcher from the turn of the 19th century, Tom Turner, earned enough to pay £40 for his house – a considerable sum at that time.
In addition to the travelling molecatcher, there were also parish molecatchers who worked locally, and didn’t travel, and whose livelihoods were often threatened by the travelling molecatcher. Contractual arrangements to keep estates, parishes and parcels of woodland cleared of moles could last for many years, which assured the molecatcher of reliable and predictable annual income – one of the longest-known ran for 31 years
Molecatching as a rural skill was very much a family business. Skills, tricks and tips were passed from father to son. Whole clans of molecatchers, thrived in distinct locations.
Molecatchers were very often distinctive local characters, tramping the rural estates in their moleskin waistcoats. (It took over 100 good moleskins to make just the two front parts of a waistcoat, so these were a mark of the skill of the molecatcher.)
As the Industrial Revolution developed, it became possible for molecatchers to use steel traps rather than clay or wood ones. During the early part of the Revolution, when machinery began to take over the jobs of agricultural labourers, many of these men, now out of work, turned parish molecatcher, as it had become more important than ever to keep the moles down – one reason being that they damaged the new enclosure fences.
Continued industrial development brought a much greater problem for the molecatchers, however – strychnine. This poison needed no skill in use, and worked out cheaper than paying the molecatcher to trap each mole individually. The molecatcher’s secrecy, and the mystery of his skills, began to work against him – as the molecatchers had kept those skills and tricks within their families, farmers and landowners began to search for other ways of controlling their mole problems. The use of strychnine became widespread, as moles could be cleared in half the time and at half the cost as traditional trapping. Later, though, some molecatchers gave up using strychnine, feeling that it was not as effective as trapping each mole individually. The use of poison also brought with it some environmental concerns, and, perhaps most importantly from the molecatcher’s point of view, it was impossible for the landowner to see the results in the same way that a display of a line of dead moles could be used as evidential proof of success in mole control Some molecatchers did survive, however, partly due to landowners clinging to older ways, partly due to the molecatchers diversifying into similar pursuits such as ratcatching, and partly due to the continued demand for moleskins
The use of strychnine was banned in 2006, leading to something of a resurgence in the traditional techniques of molecatching and an increase in the number of molecatchers using traditional methods, living and working in both the suburbs and the countryside. It remains to be seen whether or not molecatching, as a trade, will re-emerge at its former levels.