SHOOTING IN WALES
A BASC Green Shoots programme to control invasive non-native mink has been rolled out across Wales. Helena reports
Earlier this year I was fortunate to attend a fact-filled and fascinating BASC Mink Control Course run by Audrey Watson, an ecologist and BASC’s enthusiastic and hands-on Green Shoots officer for Wales. The course, which took place at the Rheidol Power Station visitor centre near Aberystwyth, was part of BASC’s Green Shoots programme that started in Wales in 2005. Thanks to continued funding from Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Green Shoots has now been extended to cover the whole of Wales and focuses on the control of invasive non-native species: mink control to benefit native water voles and other species, and grey squirrel control to benefit native red squirrels in key areas.
Ten attendees, including farmers, landowners, NRW staff, fishermen and other interested parties, heard Audrey explain that non-native American mink (Neovison vison), an adaptable, opportunistic mustelid, have become widely established throughout the UK since the 1950s following escapes and releases from mink farms, especially after the Fur Farming Prohibition Act came into force in 2000 and many mink were ‘let go’.
Mink have a devastating effect on native fauna through predation on vulnerable species of birds such as coot (coot hatching success is three times as successful when mink are not present), ducks and moorhens, gamebirds, fish (especially in stocked waters) and on mammals such as the native water vole (Arvicola amphibius). Mink are responsible for the 90% decline in native water vole numbers between 1990, when there were an estimated seven million in the UK, and 1998, when numbers plummeted to fewer than one million. They are especially deadly to water voles thanks to being voracious hunters with female mink able to get into water vole burrows, thereby breaching their last line of defence. Female mink have a litter of three to six kits each year between April and early May and while nursing will hunt extensively over a home range of some three kilometres of waterways. Removal of female mink close to water vole colonies before the end of April will protect voles and nesting birds during their breeding season.
The idea behind the BASC’s mink control courses, which are free to attend, is to train volunteers to trap and dispatch mink; volunteers can also borrow rafts and traps. By the end of 2014 BASC had more than 100 rafts and traps being managed by BASC members, fishermen and conservation partners across North Wales, with over 100 mink being culled per year. This success means BASC has extended the network to areas identified in the Wales Water Vole Strategy with mink control areas now having been established around Bedgellert, the River Dulas, Magor Marsh, around Pendine and Llanelli, and in Mid Wales.
While conservation bodies agree that mink control is an essential tool in water vole conservation, obviously best practice must be adhered to; as Audrey explained, control must be
‘Mink have a devastating effect on native fauna through predation on vulnerable species of birds, such as coot, and on mammals such as the water vole’
appropriately targeted, humane, discreet and form part of a wider strategy to include water vole habitat management. The best way to control mink is by live capture using a cage trap followed by shooting with an airgun. Firstly, however, a mink raft with a wetted clay pad is placed in a suitable position on a river or pond to see if mink are present, which is easy to establish due to their distinctive five-toed footprints. If, after a week or two, the clay pad shows mink footprints a trap can then be placed on the raft; this will usually catch mink within a few days of it leaving its tracks. Once set, the trap must be checked every 24 hours, ideally in the morning and more often in hot weather. Any non-target species must be released of course, but any mink caught must be killed; it is illegal to release them back into the wild. Dispatch is best done with an air rifle or pistol while the mink is still in the trap by firing a shot into the skull, avoiding the strong bony centreline. Disposal must be according to current legislation and BASC also asks for a record to be kept of the location of traps and how many mink are caught and dispatched. Reporting forms are provided.
The course also covered firearms law and safety and we also had time to learn about the lifecycle and habits of water voles. Volunteers interested in mink trapping should get in touch with Audrey and some of you may also be interested in helping with her water vole surveys over the summer. For more information, contact details and a guide to mink control best practice, check out www.basc.org.uk/conservation/ green-shoots/green-shoots-in-wales/minkcontrol-and-water-voles
Many American mink were released into the wild after the Fur Farming Prohibition Act came into force in 2000 Mink are responsible for the water voles’ decline