By Haydn Brown.
There were once claimed to be 200,000 coypu in East Anglia; well, if that figure was ever remotely correct then it can be fairly safe to say that now it is zero – and has been so for a number of years now!
This population descent, of somewhat astronomical proportions, was due to trapping campaigns that started way back in the 1960s and which eventually eradicated the creatures, but at some cost both in time and tax payers money. Let’s look back at the early circumstances behind what is something of a contemporary tale in these here parts.
Maybe, the first question to ask is just how did an orange-toothed South American beaver end up as East Anglian public enemy number one?………Well, it all began with a dodgy fence, and a would-be fur magnate with a name straight out of a P G Wodehouse novel. There was, however, nothing comical about the aftermath of an accidental release of a group of animals from farmland at East Carleton, Norfolk in 1937. These creatures were known by their more familiar name – coypu. Their story remains a fascinating one which once encompassed bitter rows between farmers and conservationists, landowners and politicians, along with a generous helping of cutting-edge science and, at times, more than a hint of old fashion farce as well!
Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that it was a story which ran and ran to the point where some probably became fed up………! in fact, its roots went back more than 80 years, to 1929. That was the year when aspiring entrepreneurs in this country began to import a species of large rodent from Argentina.
At up to 3ft long including the tail, and weighing perhaps 9kg, the coypu was an impressive creature – for a rodent. It was not quite a capybara or a beaver, but much bigger than the common rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels that we were used to in our part of the world. In many ways, you could consider the coypu to be something like a monstrous water vole, living along rivers and in swamps and marshes, and feeding on a wide range of mainly plant foods. With its combination of walrus whiskers, stumpy body, webbed hind feet and large orange front teeth it was never going to feature on the list of the most elegant animals in nature. In fact, it could be presented as rather a fearsome creature, which might explain why it was exhibited at the Great Yarmouth Easter Fair in 1935 as the ‘giant sewer rat’, accompanied by a rather lurid painting of two sewer workers fending it off with shovels!
The local farmers were not, of course, interested in the coypu’s looks; neither were those entrepreneurs out to make a profit. It was the creature’s fur that was the big attraction, its stomach area yielding a fine, soft undercoat of fur known as ‘nutria’. Twenty-two pelts were enough to make one fur coat and this was the attraction for those hoping to make a lucrative living. Notable amongst these was the delightfully-named landowner Philip Tindal-Carill-Worsley (1881-1946) was living at East Carleton Manor and saw an opportunity to make a profit from some very wet land along the stream that formed the border with the Mulbarton parish. This stream orginates from behind Catmere Herne, borders ‘The Meadows’, passes under the B1113 at Mulbarton Bridge, flows through the lake of The Grove (Cheshire Disability), across Intwood Ford and on to join the River Yare near Keswick Mill. The stream and an adjacent area north of Catbridge Lane was fenced off and pens built for the animals. Here, Tindal-Carill-Worsley set up his coypu farm on what was a 120-acre site – alongside a silver fox farm which was also set up for the same reason. Gamekeeper Charles Edgar George Schofield was put in charge – and by 1938 there were 300 animals. The coypu pelts, or nutria fur, were sorted at East Carleton and sent off to the London market. Tindal-Carill-Worsley was one of three Norfolk landowners who were to dabble in the nutria trade.
Things were fine at first, that is up until the year of 1937 when heavy rain caused some galvanised iron sheets to collapse. Some coypu, recognising an opportunity of more freedom, immediately seized this one possible chance to head for the nearest watercourses. A year after their escape coypu were noticed at Cringleford, near to Norwich, and within a few years they had reach Oulton Broad and the lower Yare and Waveney. At first, they were rarely spotted at all due to the fact that they are naturally very timid and tended to vanish at the first sign of danger. Their presence was only betrayed by tell-tale fast moving bubbles, and that distinctive whiskery snout when they came up for air.
Despite the fact that all of the country’s nutria farms had closed by 1940, the consequences of the 1937 escape meant that their numbers grew rapidly and would linger on for decades, well beyond the period of war when people had much more on their plates to deal with than an oversized renegade rodent and its ‘voracious vegetarianism’. Back in 1943, they simply ‘noted’ its presence, despite the fact that complaints about Coypus clearly damaging reed beds had started to be recorded.
Like herbivores the world over, the coypu’s principal survival mechanism is to out-breed their supposed predators – there were not many of those around in the East Anglian region, but the coypu were not to know! Maturing after only eight months, coypu bred up to five times in every two years and with up to nine young in each litter. This, of course, made them very popular with the fur farmers, as one pair of coypu could produce 60 descendants over their three-year lifetime. All very lucrative, at least in theory, but once the creatures were out in open country, it was quite another and serious matter entirely.
Soon people were harking back to the case of the musk rat. Introduced into Europe in the first years of the 20th century for its fur, it too had escaped. Five animals wriggled out of an estate near Prague in 1905 and had become, according to one fanciful and suspiciously exact estimate, 100,000,000 by 1932. In this country the musk rats were eliminated by 1928 but only after a long and expensive eradication campaign. Then, just one year later, there we were importing another voracious non-native herbivore. It’s strange how some people never seem to learn! In mainland Europe the musk rat was blamed for burrowing into, and weakening, river banks – the reason why they are still tightly controlled in the Netherlands to this day – and this charge was soon being levelled at the coypu. This claim would be made again and again over the years but of this, at least, the coypu may have been unfairly pilloried.
By 1945 Mr H W Palmer, Pests Officer to Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee, was saying: “We have trapped and killed hundreds, especially in the Cringleford and Broads areas. They have become a feature of our fauna.” He also went on to say that in his opinion they were “harmless and purely vegetarian, living largely on the shoots of young rushes, and I do not think they do much real damage.” He said there was ‘no evidence’ that they damaged river banks. It was clear that it was its large increase in numbers that some people found unsettling.
The bitter winter of 1947 saw off many of the coypu, and population crashes were to be a feature of every sharp winter from then on. In wintertime, too, they were easy to spot, and therefore easy to kill, as they tended to huddle together for warmth. But as soon as spring came, numbers rapidly grew once more. By 1948 coypus had reached the mouths of the Nar at King’s Lynn and the Yare at Gorleston. There was still much debate raging about the creatures impact, but not everyone bought into the ‘giant rat’ image. In fact the coypus were so popular in the 1940s with some children, particularly in Cringleford – one of their early strongholds – where they would deliberately spring the traps to free them.
Ted Ellis, that past doyen of Norfolk naturalists, would be closely involved over the years. At this time, he was pointing out that the coypus were mainly eating reeds, and said they only ‘very occasionally’ damaged sugar beet crops. “I have watched coypus at close range often enough and found it hard to wish them ill,” he said. But at the same time he recognised that they were affecting rare plants on Surlingham Broad, and reluctantly concluded that “their increase must be checked by man”.
Later that year the Great Ouse Catchment Board reportedly made – and quickly withdrew – a £5 reward offer for each coypu skin handed in. Someone, it seems, had had a gentle word in the ear of officials and pointed out that if they offered that much (worth £160 in today’s money) then very soon the fly ol’ country boys would be busy catching coypus, all right – for breeding!
The trouble was no-one could really agree how damaging the coypu were. The ‘official position’ was that it was a ‘potential menace’ on its artificially banked waterways, but the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board chief engineer said he had not seen a single case of coypu damage in ten years. Someone else wrote to the local newspapers about his fears of tunnelling, fearing a ‘major disaster’. But fellow landowner Henry Cator, of Woodbastwick, countered that the coypu were keeping the Broads waterways open ‘free, gratis and for nothing…’ by clearing out the bullrushes. It didn’t help the debate that there were just so many myths and half-truths floating around, just like the coypus’ habit of growling when cornered – plus those orange incisors! This led to some people fearing they would soon ‘attack’ Broads boating parties. J M Last of Corpusty had to write in 1960 – to point out that “coypus do not lurk in banks and hedges to leap upon passing cyclists.” However, the knack of these animals suddenly appearing in unexpected places such as suburban gardens, beaches and even Great Yarmouth Fire Station did not exactly endear them to local people. In one startling 1961 incident a coypu even turned up in an outside loo at Litcham which prompted the comment “What puzzles us, is how it got there in the first place and managed to lock itself in.” Well, the animal might have been ‘caught short’!
After its escape from fur farms in the late 1930s it had taken to munching through rushes clogging up Broads waterways, thereby keeping them clear for boats. The debate ranged and went on and on. Did they eat crops? Did they tunnel into riverbanks? So, In an attempt to bring some science into the matter Norfolk naturalist, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, kept some Coypus for six weeks and discovered they were ‘hopeless’ at burrowing; they liked sugar beet best, followed by kale and other root crops, but didn’t really care for potatoes. He argued that their crop-eating was more than outweighed by their usefulness in keeping those rivers weed-free. It was an argument that was not going to cut any ice with local farmers, who became increasingly strident as the 1950s wore on. Soon they were banging on the doors of their local MPs and the Ministry demanding action, but the reply at first was that there were ‘no plans’ to bring in controls’.
In 1958, the National Farmers’ Union county meeting in Norwich asked the ministry to list them as pests because of damage to sugar beet near waterways. Suffolk NFU followed suit a few months later. But the newspapers were still predicting that ‘an all-out attack on coypu in Norfolk was unlikely’, and people continued to write in claiming the damage reports were grossly exaggerated.
The public mood, though, was definitely with the farmers. one of whom said how coypu had cleared three-quarters of an acre of beet from his land:
“They took them when the beet were about as big as your thumb. They went right along the line, pulling the little beet up. They bit off the root and left the leaf lying on the ground. Rabbits were never as bad as that”…..“Two years ago I used to think they were pleasant animals. I even use to feed one near the Broad. Now I kill all I can.”
In 1960 the language took on a military hue, with a ‘War on coypus’ reported. They were soon killed in their thousands, or rather tens of thousands, aided by a 1962 Order under the Destructive Imported Animals Act which aimed to wipe out coypu and mink within five years – but still the numbers grew. More than 100,000 were reported killed in the year to September 1962 in the East Suffolk and Norfolk River board area alone. Rabbit clearance societies were called in to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, in the decidedly non-Broads setting of the Jupiter Road industrial estate in Norwich, a new ‘weapon’ was being introduced. The Coypu Research Laboratory would spend years finding out as much as it could about the coypus’ habits, even fitting them with radio transmitters so their movements could be tracked.
A massive publicity campaign was launched at the same time, using everything from local television to post office noticeboards to warn the public of ‘the coypu menace’.
For a while, it looked like the battle would be won quickly. The terrible winter of 1962-63 had wiped out tens of thousands, with guns, traps and dogs accounting for thousands more. By February 1965 a campaign was being launched to clear Wroxham Broad, described as the coypus’ ‘last redoubt’ – a claim which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In the same year Coypu Control was set up, with five trappers working full time – which with hindsight was simply not enough. In 1966 the £72,000 campaign had cleared 2,500 sq miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire, way above expectations. But still the coypu appeared. Every year saw upwards of a thousand trapped, giving the lie to reports of a battle won. Then a series of mild winters in the early 1970s saw numbers rocket once again. In 1973 there were 7,601 caught – more than six times the 1971 total.
By now the campaign, which was originally supposed to cost £12,000 a year over five years was up to £30,000 annually with no sign of it ending. Critics began to point out it cost £6 to wipe out each coypu, but no-one had ever actually worked out in monetary terms how much damage they were causing. It was time for a fresh look and in 1977 the Government set up an independent Coypu Strategy Group to look at long-term control issues. Then in June the following year, a £1.7 million masterplan was unveiled to wipe out the coypu within ten years. Just as well, with Coypu Control reporting the rodents had developed an alarming new taste – for cereals!
This time, 24 trappers were employed and the 10-year project started in 1981. With the aid of careful ongoing analysis, including dissection of bodies to understand population structure, this approach was successful and the coypu was effectively extinct by 1989. Interesting elements of this strategy was that included was an absolute decision that the project would end after 10 years, whatever the result, and that if the trappers were successful they would get a bonus of up to three times the annual salary, declining as the 10-year deadline loomed. The trapping was carried out using weldmesh cages baited with carrots, and the captured animals were despatched using a .22 pistol. Also, one of the more interesting developments to emerge during the project was the adoption of trapping rafts. As well as being relatively safe from interference, the rafts kept the baited traps at water level and attractive to coypu, throughout the cycle on tidal waters such as the Norfolk broads.
Overall, it was felt that this ‘final’ push would mean the end for the orange-toothed invader. In 1984 a total of 2,300 coypus had been killed; the following year scientists claimed that there were fewer than 20 adults left. Then in1987, the last colony was found near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, and only a dozen were caught that year. In 1988 just two solitary males were reported – one at Barton Bendish, and one near Peterborough. So, in January 1989 agriculture minister (and our local MP) John MacGregor was able to declare that, at last, the coypus were gone for good. Each of the trappers was stood down, with a £20,000 bonus for their efforts.
Was that the end of the story? Well not quite. In December 1989, a male coypu was caught at the Little Ouse at Feltwell and there continued to be 40-50 possible ‘sightings’ each year for some time thereafter but nothing was ever substantiated. Coypus did live on in Norfolk for a while, but only at Great Witchingham Wildlife Park where, unlike the dodgy fencing incident of the 1930’s, this time round the critters were securely penned in, drawing to a close East Anglia’s coypu saga. It only took 50 odd years and more than £2.5 million of tax payers’ money to get rid of a problem caused by “man’s greed and women’s vanity.”
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