Michael Blencowe is the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Community Wildlife Officer and recently published this piece on the history of mink in Sussex on the Wildlife Trust’s website where there is a fascinating range of news, stories and pictures about the work of the trust.
The Wind in the Willows is one of Britain’s most beloved books. Yet this story of riverbank wildlife would no doubt have lost some of its charm if in the final chapter Kenneth Grahame had introduced a new character – a deranged American serial killer who eats their victims.
It’s easy to cast American Mink as the bad guys. With long, sleek bodies equipped with razor sharp teeth they’re natural born killers as vicious in water as they are on land – part polecat, part piranha.
But it was the mink’s thick, waterproof fur – their adaptation to water and winter – that was its downfall.
Enter the real villains of this tale: the ghastly women who craved mink fur coats and the greedy men out make a fast buck from a mink massacre.
American Mink were imported into the UK in 1929. By the 50’s, British Mink farms were springing up everywhere, including in East Sussex, producing pelts at full pelt. But fur farmers had overlooked one important thing: the mink were smarter than they were.
Mary Potter remembers the mink farm in Buxted: “They built the cages with ordinary wire netting. The mink made short work of that and escaped. With stronger netting, they started again with more mink. Again, the wire was no match for their teeth. After a third attempt with stronger wire netting, they gave up and released them.”
The result of a new alien predator invading our waterways was catastrophic.
Kingfishers, ducks, moorhens, fish and toads suddenly found themselves on the mink’s menu and were swiftly dispatched with a Dracula-style bite of the neck. The worst victim was the water vole – Ratty from The Wind in the Willows – which the mink almost completely eradicated from Sussex.
The late, great Jim ‘The Fish’ Smith walked and worked the River Ouse for decades. Legend has it that Ouse river water ran through his veins. He first encountered a mink decades ago, when one cruised past him downstream on a piece of driftwood.
“I had never seen a mink before and had no idea what it was,” he says, “but it wasn’t long before we saw God knows how many along the river.”
During the 60’s, Jim and four others were employed to trap and humanely kill mink: “In those days we were doing nothing but trapping mink. We were catching 25-30 a week.”
Thankfully fashions and attitudes changed and mink farms are gone but in our rivers their ferocious, furry legacy remains.
“These days you don’t see that many mink so I have to conclude that the effort put into controlling them has been successful,” Jim says, “but you’re never going to get rid of them all.”