Aliens Abroad: Mink

Aliens Abroad: Mink.

My mother killed all the water voles in England. Well not quite all, yet. Only ninety-five percent at the most recent count, which I know from watching Jimmy’s Forest on SBS One. And when and how did this happen you might ask? It started around 1946. I was six years old and my mother was a land-army girl in Suffolk. I remember her taking me to work with her on a couple of occasions. I liked going with her but where she worked made me sick because of the extraordinary smell; the vilest stench one could imagine.

Mother worked on a mink farm. Because of the war and the difficulty of getting things from overseas, the fashion industry had run out of mink and some enterprising fellow began breeding them in cages, not far from where we lived. Half-rotten fish heads and offal where dispensed to the feeding bowls by my mother and half-dozen other girls twice daily, along with fresh water.

If you’ve seen a ferret you’ve pretty much seen a mink. Except the mink has much bigger teeth, and is more ferocious when hunting. Later, as a nature-loving lad living in a country village, I would spend a lot of time in the woods and fields and on river banks. I watched stoats and weasels – ferret-like but much smaller – and squirrels, and my favourite creatures: water voles and otters. Imagine a furry guinea-pig-like critter only with a tail. Voles lived in holes in the banks of streams and ponds. I would watch them for hours, feeding and going on with their Beatrix Potter-like lifestyles.

It seemed that mother had only just begun working at the farm when suddenly the job finished. Half-listening to conversations between my grandmother and a neighbour over their regular cup of tea, I distinctly remember Gran stating in a defensive sounding voice, ‘I’m sure they got it all wrong. Mava (my mother) would have made sure the cages were locked. She’s never left the chicken-house unlocked. We’ve never lost a bird.’

It seems that quite a few mink had escaped and my mother had lost her job because of it. Nearly seventy years later, the loveable water vole is close to extinction and it could be because my mum failed to lock a cage door.

Many other UK animals and birds have been drastically reduced in number by the predation of this alien killer: the mink

Optimising options

Why do I retell this story? Simply to try to bring home the message that nature is bigger and smarter than mankind. No matter how clever we become, wisdom still seems to elude us. There was a time long ago when ignorance about the natural world could have resulted in death. Everyone needed to know what could be safely eaten and what couldn’t; what critters were dangerous or not; what dangers changes in the weather might signal.

The arrival of agriculture (in the Neolithic period) – i.e. planting seeds and domesticating food animals – saw man beginning to clear the forests to make way for crops and pasture. It also was the beginning of building permanent settlements. From that time on, men set out to optimise their agricultural options and what came with it was a slowly growing disregard for the totality of nature. What began as a way of life – simply providing a family with food throughout the year – eventually became a profitable business enterprise, providing food for the growing populations in towns and cities. The population increased because of the new food security provided by agriculture.

Sadly, there is not room here to talk about progress and the arrival of the industrial revolution. But hold on to the concept of improving agricultural options for therein lies the reason for our greatest problem and, more importantly, the planet’s greatest problem.

We all did it!

My mother did not release the cane toad in Queensland to control the bugs in her sugar-cane patch, but could have, and then watched them spread in about the same amount of time that the mink has taken to spread across the UK. We now see the cane toad appearing in Western Australia, through the Kimberly’s and traversing what we would see as some seriously difficult country. And its progress has been devastating for native animals. Goannas etc, do not know that the cane toad is poisonous and they die when they eat it. And of course the toad has itself eaten everything that moves that it discovers as it travels.

My mother did not release the domestic cat into the wilds in Australia. Though I’m sure she would not have thought too much about a litter of kittens disappearing from under the shed and would probably have continued putting out a saucer of milk for their mother long after they seemed to have mysteriouslyvanished. Now an eleven million strong army of hungry feral moggies is spread across the land, devouring millions of lizards, birds and small mammals every day.

My mother didn’t release the first rabbits into the paddock so that our workers could have rabbit stew and, at the same time enjoy, a bit of recreational shooting, but, knowing my mother, she could have.

My mother didn’t leave the aviary door open that probably released the Common Myna which throws rosellas and small parrots out of their nesting holes, or starlings, which devastate crops in many places; and both of which compete with our local birds for food. But mum might have, if her ambiguous record on locking gates holds up.

I could go on but I won’t. I won’t go on about foxes and carp and … You get my drift I’m sure. Everything about nature is smarter than any idea man ever had. Yes, nature allowed him to be clever, but man collectively, was never able to grasp the idea of the ‘big picture’ and, for whatever reason, nature is beginning to creak under the weight of his ignorance. The latest estimates claim that humans have been responsible for adding more than thirty billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere and we are likely to see the effects of that in the not-too-distant future.

Now for the good news

The dramatic reduction in the number of otters in Britain in 1957 was first blamed on the mink. It was later discovered that organochlorine pesticides where the cause. These were banned in the mid 1960’s and eventually, otter numbers began to increase. Of particular welcome news is that they are killing and eating the mink reducing their numbers dramatically. The water vole numbers continue to increase as those of the mink decrease. A good news story at last. Now. If only our feral cats would eat the cane toads it would solve a huge problem. If only!

There might not be a solution to both our growing population and our insatiable consuming habits and the resulting environmental issues. Whether we like it or not, whatever has been done was done by all of us. It’s a species thing.

So perhaps its mother nature’s turn to leave the gate open. If she does, who knows what she will let loose?

In the meantime, I’ve remembered something else. My mother would have loved a Mink coat. I heard her tell Gran.

Country Notebook articles are written by Richard Lee for his monthly newspaper column of the same name.

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