While it’s no secret that rabbits can cause widespread and expensive damage to cereal crops, the threat posed by moles is perhaps less well known.
Pest control expert Barry Luckhurst is only too well aware of the problem, though – and knows how to tackle it.
“One farmer near Winchelsea lost a prize bull out of the blue and had no idea why it had died,” explained Barry, who heads up Ashford, Kent-based Olde English Pest Control.
“The vet discovered that the animal had died from listeriosis, which was traced back to the fact that a mole heap had been picked up by the combine and incorporated into the haulage.
“As well as the danger that soil from mole heaps can contain listeria bacteria, there is a risk that when a silage or combine harvester picks up bits of soil it can lead to poor fermentation of the crop around it.“
With mole activity currently on the increase, Barry has been kept busy tackling the destructive tunnelers, as well as dealing with rabbits, foxes, squirrels, rats and many other unwanted creatures.
With 30-odd years of experience in the industry, Barry has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge, not just of pest control but of country ways and animal behaviour in general.
It’s impossible not to pick up fascinating snippets of information during the briefest of conversations, although his willingness to impart that information has seen a number of would-be rivals set up in business.
“There is a steady stream of people out there who think pest control is about wandering around in the sunshine with a gun under their arm until midday and then enjoying lunch in the pub,” he said. “In reality it involves a great deal of experience, judgment and knowledge, and that isn’t something you can pick up over a couple of weekends.”
In Barry’s case he has picked it up over a lifetime. He can remember visiting farms with his uncles in 1967 when he was two and they were helping to dispose of cattle during the foot and mouth outbreak that year.
“I knew the gun laws before I could walk and I was always determined to work in the countryside and use my experience to help farmers,” said Barry, who set up his own business at the age of 24 and hasn‘t looked back since. “It’s not a job but a way of life, and one that I wouldn’t swap.”
That love of the countryside extends to a love of wildlife and a determination to do what he does humanely and without cruelty. He is proud of his Wildlife Aware accreditation and sets himself even higher standards.
But while Barry makes sure he dispatches unwanted pests quickly and humanely, that doesn’t stop him from doing an impressively thorough job, whether he is tackling an urban garden or 1,000 acres of farmland.
When the Chapel Down winery, near Tenterden, was suffering from rabbit damage to its vines last year, they called in Olde English Pest Control – with impressive results. “I dispatched 209 rabbits in three weeks across 17 acres of vineyard,” he recalled.
“Once I have carried out an initial sweep and brought the problem under control, it just needs occasional maintenance to keep the levels down.”
Barry usually uses ferrets – he has 13 – and long nets to carry out the initial cull. Netting gives him time to dispatch the animals humanely, particularly when dealing with the numbers found at Chapel Down. A licensed shotgun is a back up for any that evade the nets.
“Rabbits can cause huge problems in vineyards, and their impact on cereal crops is equally well known,” he said. “Tackling a rabbit problem is not so much a cost as an investment. Grain is too expensive to grow just to feed the local rabbit population.”
Moles, also, can prove expensive. “The incident with the bull was a particularly distressing example of the damage they can cause, but if you don’t get rid of moles and mole hills they can cause other problems, including costly damage to machinery,” said Barry.
“Expensive combines, forage harvesters and mowers really don’t like having their insides clogged up with soil, and once the crop reaches a reasonable height the hills disappear from view. Getting rid of the moles early is the only answer.”
Squirrels are another pest that can cause a huge amount of damage, with vines and trees at risk from their habit of stripping bark from the trunks, while rats also feature highly on Barry’s hit list.
“The last thing a farmer wants is to see rat droppings in his grain store, and the increasingly tough standards demanded by customers make it more important than ever to tackle the problem quickly,” he said.
“Grain can be rejected if it is too badly contaminated, and farmers are no longer able to buy rat bait without a licence. It’s a job that needs doing properly and I have plenty of experience in tackling even the heaviest infestation.”
With farmers under increasing cost pressure, Barry knows how important it is for them to operate efficiently. “My aim is to boost productivity by removing pests that are nibbling away not just at the crop but at the farmer’s bottom line,” he pointed out.