Life

Take On Nature: Feisty American visitor a byword both for luxury and savagery

Mink are opportunistic predators, feeding on anything from rodents and ground-nesting birds to frogs and fish
Stephen Colton

THE dark bushy tail disappearing through the long grass and scrub close to the river bank suggested Mink, that small carnivore of the mustelid or weasel family, which includes the otter, stoat, pine marten and badger.

My instinct said mink because of its brown/black fur colour, proximity to the river and its furtive movement. The last occasion I saw this lithe and energetic mammal was some years ago along the rocky shoreline close to the harbour village of Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, as it busily tracked its way over rocks, through shallow pools in search of prey like fish or crabs.

An invasive, non-native, semi-aquatic species, Neovison vison, or American mink as it’s called, was originally brought from North America to Europe for fur farming in the early 1950s. With its short shiny guard hairs and dense underfur, Mink fur was highly prized for use in clothing.

In The American Mink in Ireland; Mammal Review 18: (1988), Dr Chris Small notes that the earliest mink farm in Ireland was set up in Killybegs, Co Donegal in 1951. Left unregulated for years, it was inevitable that security around many mink ranches was sufficiently slack for such slim, sinuous animals to escape.

Once enough numbers broke free into the wild, it was only a matter of time before the mink would breed and spread rapidly throughout the countryside. These numbers were added to by deliberate releases from some farms in financial difficulties.

The animals readily adapted to their new environment, establishing themselves at the top of the food chain in a variety of habitats, their only key requirement the presence of some body of water in the form of rivers, ponds, swamps or coastal pools.

Mink are opportunistic predators, feeding on anything from rodents and ground-nesting birds such as pheasant, to frogs, fish, eels and aquatic bird species such as ducks or moorhens. Like other members of the weasel family, mink can exhibit 'surplus killing' behaviour when presented with an abundance of food, such as in a poultry house full of chickens.

Max Bachrach in Fur; A practical Treatise (1953), wrote of the animal: "In the entire weasel family, there are few that are more bloodthirsty and cruel than the mink, and few that are more tireless and active".

The first known escape from a fur farm in Ireland occurred near Omagh in Co Tyrone in 1961, where 30 animals broke free, 15 of which were subsequently trapped, the other 15 making their way to the nearby River Strule.

James Fairley, in Basket of Weasels (2001), states that these escapees led to "the first breeding population for which there is any detail". Decades on, mink are now widespread in Ireland, found in 95 per cent of the country; according to Hayden and Harrington in Exploring Irish Mammals (2000), "it is now unrealistic to expect that feral mink could ever be eradicated from this country and we must accept it as another resident member of our wild fauna".

Smaller than an otter, this slender, fearless mammal with brown-black fur, narrow snout and white throat, typically kills its prey by biting them through the skull or neck.

Although the impact of mink on native Irish species has not been as catastrophic as was initially feared, there are still concerns about its potential negative impact on water-bird populations and on ground-nesting birds as well as farmed fish and domestic poultry.

Fairley puts it well when he writes of the paradox that is the word ‘mink’ as "a byword both for sophisticated luxury and unparalleled savagery".

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