Tue February 22, 2011

Scottish Volunteers Hunt Vicious, Invasive Minks

In Scotland, there's been an American invasion — but it's not exactly what it sounds like.

Scotland has been overrun by American minks. The animals were brought to Britain back in the 1950s to be farmed for fur coats. Now tens of thousands are running wild and wreaking havoc on other species.

The Scots have begun a campaign to clear their lands of the invaders. The goal: to kill them all.

Xavier Lambin, who is leading the charge, is a Belgian-born ecologist at the University of Aberdeen. He lives in a part of Scotland that's proud to promote its Scotch whisky and salmon fishing. But Lambin is spending his time chasing minks.

He's seen them on the River Don. Truth be told, they're not the most pleasant creatures. Minks are vicious carnivores. They're about the size of small cats, but if they met a cat they'd probably eat it.

"They will basically be patrolling the banks," Lambin says, "looking for birds and frogs and small mammals — voles."

Yes, voles. If you know anything about Scotland, you know you don't mess with their water voles. Those furry little creatures are beloved here. Scottish novelist Kenneth Grahame used a water vole as a main character in his children's book The Wind in the Willows.

An Invasive Species

Back in his mink war room at the zoology department, Lambin says 95 percent of the voles are gone, thanks in large part to the minks.

"You either deal with this invasive species, or you accept to lose some of your native species. It's quite a dilemma," he says.

And Lambin is confronting it with one of the world's most ambitious programs to eliminate an invasive species. So far, nearly 4,000 square miles of Scotland have been declared mink-free.

The minks are caught in live traps — but they're not left in the traps for long. Soon someone kills the mink with a single shot to the head. Cruel as this sounds, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says the process is humane and necessary to protect Scotland's ecosystem.

Volunteer Mink Killers

In The Wind in the Willows, Ratty the water vole captured the beauty of the countryside. "It's my world, I don't want any other," he proclaimed.

Sarah Wanless still cherishes that book, which she says was read to many children of her generation in Britain. "It was a book that absolutely fired my imagination when I was a child," she remembers.

This is why she's so ticked off at the minks. They're vole killers. By day, Wanless works a job protecting seabirds. But on the side, she manages a mink trap.

"A big female mink was successfully trapped here, which is absolutely fantastic," she says.

And that's really the striking thing about this story. So many Scots love their countryside and their wildlife. And to protect it all, they've signed up to serve as volunteer mink killers.

Adrian Hudson works for an organization that promotes fishing. He's also trapped minks — and he's trained to fire the shot.

What motivates Hudson is Scotland's precious salmon, and the jobs at the hotels and restaurants along the Dee River that serve the people who come to catch them. When salmon are killed by minks, he says, the local economy suffers.

"You don't wake up in the morning saying, 'Oh! I might get to shoot a trapped mink today!' " he says. "But ... they're a pest. I guess there probably are people who like mink, but I've never met one."

Other Options?

Still, there are a few people out there who aren't ready to jump on the anti-mink bandwagon. At a pub in the city of Aberdeen, Andrew Ednie sounded a bit Darwinian about the whole mink problem.

"They may have affected the natural order of things, but things are always changing, so just leave them," he says.

His friend, Susan Stuart, says scientists simply must have other options.

"They're just not looking hard enough. They're looking for the easy way out, really, aren't they? 'Let's just shoot them.' It's not all just the minks' fault," she says.

True as that may be, this war seems to have no end. Once scientists clear the minks out of Scotland, they plan to drive the American invaders out of the whole of Britain. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.