A rum rodent

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Coypus were originally brought over from South America to be bred for their fur but became an invasive pest in this country
Brian Watson with the large rodent he killed
Brian Watson, who caught a ‘giant rat’ in County Durham in 2012. This is believed to be the last known sighting in the UK of a coypu in the wild

I am an unashamed animal lover, and cannot abide any cruelty shown to creatures great or small. Through my columns, I occasionally highlight the plights of some members of our native species that are under the threat of extinction.

However, I am also a hypocrite, in that there are living creatures that I would not hesitate in disposing of if they were bothering me, namely ants, wasps, hornets, house flies, fleas, ticks and rats. I know, it makes no sense.

So when I read an old article about a three-foot-long giant rat that had been killed in County Durham, I was mightily relieved it had been caught. The picture of farmer Brian Watson holding up the massive rodent made me shudder with revulsion.

However, all was not as it seemed, and it appears that it was not a rat at all, but more likely to have been a coypu, a large rodent native to South America. The creature looks a bit like a beaver, but while they have a flat, paddle-like tail, a coypu’s is round, like a rat’s. Its snout is also not as rounded as a beaver’s. So I can understand the confusion.

This story appeared in 2012, and is supposed to be the last known case of a coypu running free in this country. It is the only reported sighting of a coypu after 1989, when they were believed to have been completely eradicated from Great Britain after first being imported in 1929 to be bred for their fur.

Forty years ago, as Dad wrote in his column from 26Th January 1980, they were still a very real pest living wild in the British countryside, colonising the shores of our waterways. The problem had come about thanks to some of the original fur farmers being less than diligent with their security, and of the 49 farms that started to breed them, more than half reported escapees between 1929 and 1939.

At first these subtropical invaders were not considered a threat, as everyone thought they’d die off in the colder climate, but the clever creatures quickly adapted to the British weather, finding their way into our wetlands and river systems where they created large burrows in the banks, while feeding themselves on weeds, rushes and local crops of beets, cereals and flower bulbs.

Coypu are prolific breeders, and mate all year round, producing four or five babies each time. These youngsters are fertile from just a few months old, and quickly move on to establish their own burrows, find mates and raid the local crops.

The proliferation of coypu soon began doing serious damage to the river banks and flood defences of Norfolk and north Suffolk, which began collapsing, threatening the surrounding low-lying land, another alarming consequence for local farmers. The coypu began to spread further afield, working their way into neighbouring counties, and by the 1960s it was firmly established here, with numbers peaking at 200,000. It became clear that something had to be done, and such was the threat that rather than trying to control the population, a programme of complete eradication was implemented. The main technique was to use a team of trappers in the most densely affected areas. At first it seemed to be successful, and by 1963, the population of coypu was reduced by 90%, so the large team of trappers was scaled down. However, we now believe the main reason for the decline was in fact the harsh winter of 1962/3, as not long afterwards, the coypu population was yet again on the march.

By 1980, they were extremely troublesome and Dad wrote: “The coypu destroys plant crops, wreaking havoc among reed beds, sugar beet and cereals…One wonders if it will replace the otter, whose numbers are declining.”

Thankfully, Dad’s concern did not come to fruition as, realising the original eradication strategy was ineffective, the Government introduced a new, more sophisticated plan following a long-term study of the ecology and breeding characteristics of the animal. The aim was to eradicate them from our shores within 10 years, and by 1989, they had achieved that goal.

So now, the only place you should see a coypu in this country is in the zoo. But a quick search of the internet still reveals regular sightings of ‘giant rats’ all over the UK. The question is, are these actually rats, or has the coypu outwitted us yet again?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 24th Jan and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd  Jan 2020

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