Mink and water voles

Many years ago I saw a mink. It was scurrying up the opposite riverbank and I got a quick look at it. All terribly exciting at the time but fortunately not something that I have seen again.

Mink are very much the enemy nowadays having contributed in making water voles locally extinct in South West England. There were a few other factors such as accidental killing of water voles by gamekeepers trying to kill rats, and habitat loss. Nonetheless a single mink can virtually eliminate a localised population of water voles, not to mention the damage it does to other wildlife. Mink are invasive and normally native to cold places. This means that they go on killing sprees believing that the cold will preserve their kills for later. In the UK it is not cold enough and so the prey is not preserved and the mink can easily wipe out entire populations of wildlife without eating very many of them at all. They don’t yet seem to have evolved away from their natural instincts to kill, nor is there any selection pressure on them to do so. Mink are flourishing in the wild with abundant prey and no predators.

There has only been one successful attempt to remove mink, the River Chess is now a mink free zone. In 2001 the river was home to around 350 water voles. Several mink then arrived, presumably escapees from fur farms, and removed 97% of water voles. Mink can hunt water voles very effectively as the voles only defence is their underwater burrow, which the mink can get into. Luckily the local environment agency realised what was happening here and introduced a trapping and shooting policy which eradicated the mink. As of 2011 the water vole population was 345.

Whilst the authorities in this area acted quickly the same cannot be said of anywhere else. Now the mink are running wild, not helped by the fact that around 5000 got out from a fur farm in Donegal in 2010, allegedly released by animal rights campaigners in a act of sheer stupidity. We really don’t know how many mink there are, which makes removing them a bit of an issue. A few years ago 12 trappers on the Western Isles killed 800 mink, indicating that the population may be far higher than most people think. The simple thing to do would be to replicate what happened on theRiver Chess and implement a trapping program. However a lack of funding and the inability of anyone in power to decide on anything at all seems to have prevented this. Recently there have been more calls to eradicate them with a large-scale cull, because culling is a popular word in government. Culling the mink is a reasonable idea but can only be done via trapping as mink are elusive at best. Blasting away with a shotgun at animals on a river bank is not a practise I can imagine working. It would surely only be a matter of time before someone accidentally shot an otter or someone’s pet cat for example. A cull is still being discussed but it has been that way for at least 5 years now. Some animal rights activists are now opposing the culling of mink as, saying they want them relocated, not killed. We have to hope these are different animal rights activists to the ones that released the mink in Ireland.

If put into operation the mink cull would be the largest attempt by the UK to remove an invasive species. The previous record was the successful removal of the coypu, a large semi-aquatic rodent that had also escaped from fur farms (there is a trend here). It was made nationally extinct in 1989 and its removal operation was extremely small scale compared to mink removal. Mink are integrated across all of the UK, not just localised pockets as the coypu was. It can be done, but it has to be well co-ordinated as they breed quickly and leaving a few would still be a problem. It is predicted that it would cost at least £20 million to remove mink in Scotland, with £5 million of that just going on the Hebrides Isles. Authorities from the rest of the UK have not published costs yet but have said that the complete removal of mink in the UK would take around 40 years to complete. That number is likely to grow as the relevant authorities are extremely slow to act on a problem they have known about for many years now.

The UK is now coypu free


In the meantime authorities are urging people to report mink sightings to their local wildlife trusts so that they can get a better idea of the scale of the problem.


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