Trappers started exterminating mink on the Western Isles of Scotland yesterday in the most intensive effort to tackle an alien species in Britain. Fourteen trappers from the Hebridean Mink Project and two workers from the Defra Central Science Laboratory in York began laying 1,000 cages near the coast and on the shores of larger lochs on the islands of North and South Uist and Benbecula.
American mink (Mustela vison) have been running wild on the islands, and in neighbouring island of Harris, since the species was imported to Britain in the 1960s.
Most are descended from animals that escaped from fur farms. Some reports claimed that the animals had been released by animal rights protesters.
The mink have no natural predators and have been blamed for destroying colonies of terns, gulls, coot, little grebe and corncrake, feasting on eggs and chicks.
The fish-farming industry that had helped rejuvenate the ailing economy of the Outer Hebrides has also been badly affected because the mink damage nets and eat the salmon. The mink have also plundered rivers and streams for wild sea trout and salmon. Many crofters cannot keep free-range poultry because the mink often kill more than they can eat.
The £1.65m, five-year trapping project has reduced the damage the mink cause, estimated to cost the local economynearly £500,000 a year. Half of the money is coming from the EU Life Nature Fund, a programme which aims to help protect natural sites.
The project was launched by a partnership of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Executive, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the local authorityfor the Western Isles, the Central Science Laboratory and Western Isles Enterprise to protect ground-nesting birds of international importance.
Previous estimates had put the number of mink on the islands at 15,000, but conservationists nowbelieve that there are 4,000, or fewer. Trapping began in December 2001, and in areas where mink have been caught the monthly counts have risen of lapwings, a ground-nesting species.
The mink-hunters, led by Dr Sugoto Roy, the project manager, are now beginning to lure their prey with fish.
They will also try and trap themby using parts of the scent glands taken from the hindquarters of mink already trapped and destroyed. The captured animals are killed by a single shot from an airgun.
Researchers from Poland, Finland, Denmark, Italy and Ireland are monitoring the project, because those countries have similar problems and face similar environmental disasters caused by the introduction of foreign predators.