In the eyes of ordinary folk, conservationists and animal rights activists are often indistinguishable. Indeed, both groups boast some pretty distinct similarities in that each, above all else, cares profoundly about the natural world, striving to protect the creatures which inhabit it wherever possible. Ask a conservationist if they buy into animal rights and the answer will undoubtedly be yes, while asking the reverse to AR supporter will, nine times out of ten, yield a similar answer. So what is the problem then? Well, in this case, an apparent disregard for hard facts and some seriously dodgy decision making courtesy of one of the most prominent names in animal welfare.
There is a fine line between animal welfare and conservation; one often lost to sight as both factions cooperate on issues of mutual importance but one which, very occasionally, rises to prominence when the aims and objectives of the above groups clash. Such is the case with the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) stance on invasive American Mink. A species of mustelid entirely unique in its ability to unite alternate and at times, disagreeing, factions within the countryside – farmers, conservationists, sportsmen and anglers – in mutual distaste for its continued success.
Just to refresh ourselves – the American Mink became established in the UK during 1956 following escapes and/or deliberate releases from fur farms. Since then it has spread across the length and breadth of Britain leaving a trail of inadvertent destruction in its wake. The species now absent only from particularly mountainous areas of England, Scotland and Wales and, as of 2004, estimated to number somewhere in the region of 36,500 individuals – far surpassing the populations of it native cousins the Pine Marten, Otter and Polecat.
As I mentioned earlier, Mink are far from the most popular animal in countryside owing to their diverse diet and status as an exemplary predator. From a conservation standpoint, Mink have had a profound negative effect upon populations of ground-nesting birds, particularly terns and gulls, and have proven detrimental to a suite of avian species ranging from common gulls and coots to moorhens and tufted ducks. See studies here, here, here. In addition to their impact on avian assemblages, Mink are also almost single-handedly responsible for the collapse of Britain’s Water Vole population – their presence linked to immediate and significant declines in vole numbers by many studies. See here, and here. While, on a side note, there are also worries centred on the prevalence of Aleutian Disease in Mink populations and the possibility of it spreading to native mustelids.
Simply put, with regards to biodiversity, mink present a very serious threat indeed. The very reason that conservation NGOs, governmental departments and landowners together pump millions into their eradication each year. I should note that the above summary goes without mention of the negative implications of Mink on angling, sporting and farming interests, as well as the potential harm inflicted upon ecotourism businesses due to the loss of iconic fauna. This is something currently being speculated on by the Non-Native Species Secretariat and is not just personal musing I promise…
Given all of the above, why then are LACS attempting to garner support for intervention on behalf of Mink? Surely it is wrong to prioritise the protection of a harmful invasive species – one with very profound implications for British ecosystem – at the expense of indigenous fauna? Maybe this is the conservationist in me speaking but I cannot help but view this particular LACS campaign as misguided and, for that matter, downright reckless. For it risks turning the tide of public opinion against well-meaning and legitimate efforts to protect our countryside and the wildlife with whom we share it.
Had LACS argued against Mink control based solely on welfare grounds, I may not have been so quick to take the offensive. There are, after all, numerous grey areas centred on humanness and ethics which must be navigated whenever the need to kill wildlife arises, for whatever purpose. The use of snares, for example, is particularly abhorrent while shooting conducted by trained and experienced marksmen is, in my mind, preferable. From what I have seen of the social media debate, however, LACS have attempted to argue the case for Mink based on the likelihood of them replacing other native predators like otters whose numbers have been diminished through hunting. An illogical viewpoint which portrays Mink as slotting seamlessly into the ecosystem, filling the niche left vacant by other species. Hmm…
Truthfully, there are too many holes in this viewpoint to point out in a single blog post; though, for me, certain aspects are too pressing to ignore. Just what are said Mink replacing exactly? The only logical option given the Mink’s preferred habitat would be Otters, as stated. Just otters and nothing else – contrary to the suggestive tone of the post. Though this species is currently undergoing a continued and rapid recolonisation of its former range and, by all accounts, is doing rather well nationally. So much so that it has now returned to every county in England, and, as long as we allow it, looks set to thrive long into the future. Regardless, research has shown the diet of Mink and Otters to differ substantially, with the latter consuming a higher quantity of fish and the former, a broader range of prey, including increased proportions of birds and mammals. Indeed, scientific studies have found Mink to be a much more generalist predator; thus the notion that they somehow fill the void left open by otters is somewhat fanciful. Don’t Water Voles and Otters coexist quite happily in many places? Or maybe I have been hearing wrong.
The next point to mention appears to be LACS apparent dismissal of Mink as a pest species. Hard to believe really given their impact on native wildlife – or does the remit of the League not permit worry about Water Voles or declining birds? Maybe not. Either way, I find it difficult to comprehend that a welfare charity would turn a blind eye to the serious welfare and conservation implications posed in this instance to defend what is, by all accounts, a blight on the British countryside. A cute and fluffy blight, innocent in its own right and incredibly interesting to watch and observe, but a blight all the same. The ascetic appeal of Mink, in the minds of some, is something I will mention again at the end of this post.
Believe it or not, I hold the League Against Cruel Sports in high esteem. As a conservationist and a supporter of animal welfare, I sympathise with and support many of their campaigns. I found their efforts to highlight the negative implications of driven grouse shooting, for example, highly commendable and agree in full with their stance on fox hunting, the killing of badgers and the poaching of hares and deer. Regardless of all this, however, LACS have lost a great deal of credibility in my eyes. For forsaking their good track record on conservation issues, for ignoring the stark environmental effects of Mink in the UK and, ultimately, for capitalising on the trend in fake news to suit their own (peculiar) agenda.
I will continue to agree with many of the actions undertaken by LACS but, for now, find myself appalled by their shortsightedness. Or perhaps their decision to back Mink was not shortsighted nor misguided, perhaps it was simply an attempt to cater to the sympathies of a population altogether supportive of the cute and fluffy – those likely to join and donate upon hearing of noble actions taken to safeguard life, absent knowledge of any facts. The Leagues coffers may benefit from this particular campaign, but their reputation will not.
Header image: North American Mink – Claude Belanger, licensed under Flickr CC