The 'royal molecatcher' outlives Versailles king

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 6, 2012 at 8:57 am •  Published: December 6, 2012
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Zoologists say their against-all-odds success is due to a decline in natural predators like wild cats and weasels — and the mole population is now booming. One single mole can make 30 molehills a day, which multiplied a hundred-fold can see entire estates pockmarked within weeks.

The royal molecatcher was first hired by Louis XIV, the Bourbon king who moved the court to Versailles in the late 1600s. Historians say that the spendthrift monarch lavished so much money on the upkeep of his beloved residence that it plunged the entire country into debt.

"Versailles was the greatest symbol of France. After everything (Louis) spent on the gardens, imagine if the moles had been allowed to run riot? All this money would have been squandered, wasted," says Versailles' head gardener Alan Baraton.

"For the king, of course, it was one of the most important functions at the palace."

So vital was the molecatcher to preserving the beauty of the costly gardens, he was rewarded with his own residence at Versailles. From the 1600s, the molecatchers all came from the same family — the Liards — until in 1812 Napoleon Bonaparte put a stop to the father-to-son succession.

"The last Liard molecatcher was a bit of a party animal, and turned the residence into a cabaret and a brothel," said Baraton.

"One day Napoleon was strolling in the gardens, and a prostitute came out and propositioned him. The molecatcher was immediately thrown out and that was the end of the residence."

Being a good molecatcher can also save lives. In 1702, William III of England died from injuries he sustained after his horse tripped on a molehill. "If the king had been more careful about the upkeep of his grass, he would not have been dead at 52 years old," says Baraton wisely.

Dormion, too, doesn't underestimate his prey.

"Moles are exceptionally clever. That's why the majority of gardeners can't catch them. One of the wiliest I have ever encountered outsmarted my traps for three months. ... Eventually, it got lazy and I got it."

He calls it one of his proudest professional moments.

Dormion also highlights how versatile the mole is. On a scorching summer day, he once stood aghast at a strange sight in one of the royal fountains: a mole swimming around the basin.

"In my job," says Dormion, "I never fail to be surprised."

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Follow Thomas Adamson at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP

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Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

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