26th April 2018
Zoologist Jordi Casamitjana offers a radical perspective on, arguably, Britain’s most maligned wild mammal:
The long and sad story of mink, the forgotten victim. I wish I had done more to help them.
Over the years I have been in the trenches of many animal protection battle fronts, but often I feel that I missed many. We UK wildlife protectionists often go on and on talking about red foxes, some who know a bit more also talk about brown hares, and those really in the know don’t ever forget to mention red deer which are still hunted by the three remaining staghunts in the West Country. But what about mink? Not many animal welfare and conservation organisations stand up for protecting mink, and I think this is very sad. And you will see why in a minute.
Unfortunately, there are people out there who wave the flag of animal lovers but they will not hesitate to tell you that they want to see all mink in the UK killed by any means necessary, be gassing, poisoning, shooting, snaring, trapping, or ripped to pieces by dogs. Others, though, waving the same flag, will say that this is outrageous … but they also want to see them killed though only with one or two of these methods, not the most “barbaric” ones. Well, I want none of them. I don’t want to see any mink killed at all. But by law, if you happen to catch a fox in the UK, you can let it go; if you catch a hare you can let it go; but if you catch mink you have to kill it, or let someone else do it for you.
What has mink done to deserve this? Nothing, other than being mink. Mink are long bodied, dark-coloured, semiaquatic, carnivorous mammals of the family Mustelidae, which also includes weasels, otters and ferrets. The mink that you can find these days in Great Britain is the American mink (Neovison vison). The European mink, which does exist in the continent, apparently never was present in the British Isles. How on earth has the American mink ended up in Great Britain then? If you ask them and they could speak to us, they probably would reply (with a distinct British accent) that they were born here and so were their parents, and their grand parents, and their great grand parents.
Those mink would not really know of course, but what really happened was this: Over 15,000 years ago American mink were just doing their mink thing in America, when a group of descendants from African ape-like primates arrived from the North. As these invaders were alien to the land, and as they had evolved in warm habitats and no longer had thick fur on their bodies, they started looking for animals with fur, killing them, and stealing their fur for warmth. Soon they spotted mink and their beautiful and very dense fur, so started killing them for it. This happened for millennia and these people never seemed to lose their appetite for chasing and killing mink for their skin, even if they did not need it anymore as the world was getting warmer and they had moved South. But some still wanted the mink’s fur because it “look good” on them and made them look important.
So, rather than keep chasing them and killing them someone had the idea of keeping them in small cages so they could kill them without chasing them … and mink farms were created. Across the Atlantic, the people here in Britain (also descendants of African ape-like primates who emigrated there) had already chased and killed most animals with fur to the point of their extinction, so they thought that it would be fun (and profitable) get some of those mink farms over here. And so they did. Britons began farming American mink in the UK from the 1920s. At their peak in the 1950s, there were 400 known fur farms. After a while, though, when people learned about the horrible conditions the mink were kept and killed in in the farms, began losing their appetite for mink coats as wearing one became politically incorrect, so some mink farmers let their mink go free and moved to something else. But the mink, rather than die out, learnt how to adapt to their new habitat. They became wild again and to their merit they survived and thrived. Today mink are widespread in Britain’s mainland, except in the mountainous regions of Scotland, Wales and the Lake District.
Yes, in the 1990’s some animal liberation activists helped to free some mink at the very end of the demise of the mink farming industry which ended with a ban on mink farming, but the wild population in the UK was already established decades earlier from multiple escapes or deliberate releases of the farmers. In fact, by December 1967, wild mink were present in over half the counties of England and Wales.
You may be forgiven to think this was a happy ending for the sad mink story, but it was not. As they were considered “alien” species and they were predators of “native” species it become acceptable (and legal) to kill any mink found “to save British wildlife”, and any method of killing seemed OK, even being ripped apart by dogs. It didn’t seem to matter if they were helping to keep the population of rabbits down (the other “alien” species many people wanted to exterminate) or that they were partially taking the role of fish predator that the native otters naturally took before they disappeared in certain rivers. They were still wanted all dead.
And as you know the hunting fraternity likes to kill wildlife for fun, so they didn’t waste any time to jump to the opportunity. Otter hunts began to target mink after otters were so depleted in numbers that it became illegal to hunt them in 1978. During a mink hunt, which normally happens throughout spring to autumn, the hounds are followed on foot as they walk or swim along riverbanks while the mink frantically attempt to escape. Unlike otters, mink have small territories (less than a mile of river bank) so once they have been spotted by the hunt they tend not to go far. Eventually they will be caught and ripped to pieces by the hounds, while a crowd of hunt followers amuse themselves with the spectacle.
When the anti-hunting movement celebrated the protection of otters at the end of the 1970s it did not hesitate to continue campaigning when it realised the “otter hunts” just switched to mink from then on, and became the 22 “mink hunts” we still have today. After all, if killing otters with dogs was barbaric, killing mink with the very same dogs was barbaric too. But some people out there disagreed with this compassionate attitude towards mink, vilifying mink as horrible “foreign” vicious creatures that kill all the “British” wildlife they can find, so they deserved to die and be exterminated.
But why kill them? Well, it’s the easy route, isn’t it? If there was an association only for the protection of gazelles in Africa, it probably would advocate for the extermination of cheetahs. If there was one only for protection of ants in South America, it probably would advocate for the extermination of anteaters. If there was a society for the protection of bamboo in Asia, it probably would advocate for the extermination of pandas. It is not the mink’s fault that it predates on critically endangered species such as water voles. That is what predators do – predate on animals they can catch and eat. Mink doesn’t know that the vole it is trying to eat to survive belongs to an endangered species. Many people would not complain if a fox would eat the very same vole (foxes are also one of their common predators). Why are there people that at the same time call for the protection of foxes and the extermination of mink, while water voles are predated by both? Cats often kill wildlife and they certainly can predate on voles too. And domestic cats, like mink, are not native from these islands and were brought up here by humans. Should they all be exterminated too? I don’t think so.
Mink hunting was banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004 as it bans the hunting of most wild mammals with dogs (regardless if they are native or not), but sadly most hunts circumvent the law and this includes mink hunts. They still go out killing mink claiming that they are now going after rats (one of the exemptions of the Hunting Act). Some of the methods to kill mink have been banned but they can be legally caught and killed by cage and spring traps and unfortunately many people, including many conservation organisations, do.
Of course we need to do as much as we humanely can to protect the water vole and other endangered species from extinction, but I don’t think we can just accept that the best way to do it is by killing all its predators (mink, foxes, otters, stoats, weasels, owls, herons, Marsh harriers, pike, Brown rats, Golden eagles and cats), or by condemning some and pardoning others, as if we really know which species Natural Selection would have “spared” if we had not been here to mess Nature up. After all, post-war intensification of agriculture, water pollution and the loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat that has taken place since that time have contributed to the water vole decline.
Call me a bunny hugger, but I just simply don’t buy the concept of “blind” lethal conservation. People always find an excuse to kill wildlife, don’t’ they? Let’s kill foxes because they eat chickens, let’s kill badgers because they get ill on cattle fields, let’s kill pigeons because they don’t wear nappies, and let’s kill mink because they have the wrong passports. Even if it is true that in the end mink ends up killing the last vole, it will still not be its fault. It will be our fault, and we cannot simply find our way out of it by continuing killing others. How many mink have to die to save the life of one vole? This “critical” approach is one of the basic tenants of what is called compassionate conservation, which I subscribe to and many other animal protectionist do these days.
So, American mink have been shot and trapped for their fur, kept captive in farms to be killed in horrible conditions, then taken captive to other countries to continue breeding them, then released but persecuted by everyone trying to kill them in all sorts of ways, and still today they are illegally hunted, and legally trapped, snared and shot dead by many people. None of these mink asked for this. We humans are the demons that are inflicting this unsolicited Hell on them since we first encountered them about 15,000 years ago.
But not all is bad in the mink story. Hunt saboteurs have not abandoned mink. And thanks to the ban the population of otters is now increasing and it seems that this is helping to keep the population of mink down, which could persuade mink “controlling” conservationists that perhaps they should stop persecuting mink and let Nature find its own balance, as it always has done.
You see, in these islands I am also considered a “foreigner” by some, so I cannot help to feel a special connection with the unfairly vilified mink. This is why it makes me feel good to see a mink image joining the fox, the stag and the hare on anti-hunting campaign material.
Mink are one of these hunting victims too, you know.
It’s simply not their fault.
© Jordi Casamitjana