It’s early morning. The river is flowing silent and flat. A heron stands patiently by the waterside as a kingfisher flits by, calling out across the water. The cormorants are collecting in their usual tree, staring at the water below, waiting patiently for fish as a seal bobs his head above the surface. On the bankside, the rowers are arriving and opening the boathouse, the usual questions of ‘why do I do this?’ circling in their minds (or at least in mine). But amongst the British wildlife, there is something else that stirs in the darkness underneath the boathouse. Something that does not belong. Something from a land far far away. And what is this mysterious creature? An alien. No, I am not referring to the rowers and as spectacular as it would be for me to claim that E.T, or the alien from ‘Predator’ is living on the banks of the Clyde, this is not exactly the case. No, because this time, I am talking about an alien species, an invasive species, or a non-native species. Who could it be? That’s right, judging from my decidedly dodgy title, I am referring to the American Mink.
When I first arrived at my new rowing club, I had heard the legends of the elusive creature that resided by the river, the very scent of this animal driving many a dog wild, as they desperately try to find this creature that is going about its business, unseen by the rest of us. At first, many people said they were unsure of the exact identity of this animal and some were referring to him as a ferret and even a weasel. But it was on one of these early mornings as I stood next to my boat, that I turned to see a little furry black face staring at me. Totally unperturbed by our presence, he watched us for a moment, before sauntering away down the river bank. That moment cemented my suspicions with there being only two words on my lips; American Mink.
So we have an alien. An american in Scotland. But how did he get to be here? Well, for those who don’t know, American mink were brought to Scotland in 1938, with mink farms beginning to spring up all over the UK in order to satisfy the need for fur in fashion. However, just over 20 years later, many mink had escaped these ‘farms’ and their populations had flourished. They could now be seen along every water course in the country. The subsequent damage caused by these non-natives to many native species was monumental. Water vole populations dropped dramatically (by 90% between 1989 and 1998) with ground nesting bird and salmon populations also suffering as a result of this new predator. However, since such consequences have been recognised, there is a country wide effort to rid the UK of the American mink. In 2017, there are now far fewer mink on the Clyde, whilst the native otter population is seemingly increasing. Why? Well, there is evidence to suggest that where otters are thriving, mink populations decrease. Currently, the exact reasoning for this is unsure, but there is suggestion that when it comes to competition between the two species, the otter proves the most dominant.
So! When I say we still have one of these invaders it is the moment where conservationists look on in horror, stand back aghast and desperately try to think of what can be done about this menace. Or at least, this is the reaction we have come to expect when we are talking about a species such as the American mink. The reaction from my fellow rowers however, was something rather different. How so? Well, it was one of affection. One of acceptance and fondness . There was even suggestion of putting his photography (if we could catch one) up on the twitter page and suggestions of giving him (or her) a name. Now, I admit when it comes to naming the animal (Sebastian is the seal) I always join in. So. May I introduce Milo? Milo the mink. However, although it was all very light-hearted and in jest, I did feel decidedly odd about this conversation. I was certain the local angling community would not share this happy view of these mink and when I used the word ‘invader’, I was met with some rather uncertain and questioning looks. On further discussion, it became apparent that many of my friends were not aware that this little animal they had come to love was a ‘non-native’ species, nor were they aware of the damage the mink population has done to British wildlife and, in some cases, nor did they care.
I read an interesting opinion piece only a few days ago, which focused on the issue of the numerous ‘non-natives’ we have in the UK. Japanese knotweed, rhododendron, himalayan balsam, American mink, grey squirrel and Chinese mitten crab are just a taster of non-natives that are causing havoc for our ecosystems. The piece I was reading highlighted the fact that millions of pounds is spent each year on their prevention and eradication and the protection of our native wildlife. However, instead of agreeing with and supporting this, this opinion piece took a very different direction. This opinion took a view of resignation. Why fight the inevitable? Why fight these invasives, when, it would seem to some, we are fighting a loosing battle? These invasives are the future of the UK, the future of our ecosystems and we must accept the change that comes with that. On the flip side however, the vast majority of these invasions have not been entirely natural. They have not been the cause of changing climates or land masses fusing together, facilitating the spread of these species, they have been caused by the actions of humans. Humans. The most successful and most damaging invasive of all.
Before my run in with the American mink on the banks of the Clyde, I was firmly of the opinion that invasives must be controlled and that it was our duty as the human race to attempt to reverse the damage we have done to our ecosystems. Now, I am not saying that this opinion has changed (it hasn’t), more that I have recognised that not everyone shares this opinion. Differing opinions! Surely not! In a conservation debate?! To most of my friends at the club, this mink is not a species that they view with an unfriendly eye, but something of a character, who pops up every now and then, observing us curiously, before returning to his day. In fact, many of them are animal lovers, who do not blame such species for their instincts and do not believe in their eradication.
So! What’s my point? Well, this time I am playing devils advocate. Something that, as I recall, my elder bother liked to do when we were little, so he could cause all sorts of mischief. I have an opinion, but I am not going to slander or scoff at the opposing one. Why? Because, in all honesty, I get it. I have seen our American mink and I have seen the affection that exists for him. That affection had the power to make me feel thoroughly ashamed of myself for viewing this creature as an invasive. When it comes to invasive species, whether I agree or not, I understand the differing opinions. Conservation is an area of science that is perhaps not as clear cut as the rest. The opinion board is very large indeed and most of them are conflicting. Invasive species like the American Mink and the Grey Squirrel do need to be controlled to protect our native wildlife but for some it is hard to stomach the thought of exterminating them. This is not because we are squeamish or ‘bunny huggers’, but because we are compassionate and animals stir those emotions in many of us. However, ecosystems need to be protected and when it comes to educating the public or the layman, we have to be careful how we approach issues such as invasives. Even though we may disagree with the opposing argument, it is important that we understand it. To us the Mink is a damaging invasive, to others it is a quirky little character that some are fond of. Invasive species will always be a delicate subject and we should treat those who have opposing opinions on invasives not with contempt, but with understanding. Understanding that will help all of us protect our ecosystems.
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” – Albert Einstein
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