Over the years I have seen many a gamekeepers’ gibbet, each one hung with an array of feathered and furred ‘vermin’. The gibbets show that the keeper is doing his job and this function must also be behind the dead mink that are sometimes displayed in prominent positions on the local nature reserve. The reserve covers a series of old gravel workings, now stocked with fish and managed by a local fishing syndicate. The revenue from the fishery pays for a part-time warden and ensures that all-important habitat management work is carried out. It seems to be a decent arrangement and the wildlife clearly benefits.
The fishermen view the introduced mink as a threat to their fishery and so control them if and when they appear. Since mink are also predators of various water birds and other vertebrates, the control also has conservation benefits on the site. It is unsettling, though, to see any creature killed and exhibited like some macabre trophy. Don’t get me wrong; mink control is regarded as being an important part of the conservation work taking place across many of our wetlands, supporting the popular view that the arrival of mink has had a pronounced impact upon prey populations.
Mink were introduced to Britain from North America and bred on fur farms from 1929 onwards. Escapes and deliberate releases quickly led to the establishment of a feral population, which soon became self-sustaining, initially in Devon (during the 1950s) and then elsewhere (from the late 1960s). The species is an opportunistic predator, taking a very wide range of fish, bird, mammal and invertebrate prey, from beetles and earthworms, through to crayfish, small mammals, water birds and even rabbits. That the species has been able to establish itself so successfully within the country, suggests that it has found a vacant niche, something that is reinforced by research demonstrating that there is little or no competition with any of our native mustelids (weasel, stoat or otter). In fact it has even been suggested that the return of otters to an area results in the loss of the mink. That certainly hasn’t happened here in Breckland; even though the otters have returned, the mink are still present and there are plenty of rivers elsewhere in Britain that also still support both species, often on the same stretches. Mink are territorial and fairly easy to trap but the frequent removal of territory-holding individuals tends to lead to an enlargement of home range, meaning that the mink will remain present but at a lower density. This suggests that mink are here to stay and will remain a feature of our rivers and wetlands for many years to come.