Had Toad and Ratty taken a stroll along the riverbank yesterday, though, they would probably have ended up as mangled carcasses, slaughtered by some of the most ferocious predators to be found in the animal kingdom.
Mink. That single syllable is enough to strike fear into the hearts of all small mammals. In their most familiar habitat, draped across rich women's shoulders, mink are quite harmless. Live, they are lethal, and up to 5,000 of them are on the loose in Hampshire, terrorising livestock and domestic pets.
"Liberated" from a fur farm near Ringwood at the weekend by animal welfare militants, the rodents are roaming far and wide, stalking wildlife in the New Forest, slipping over the border into Dorset. There have been sightings within a five-mile radius; in gardens, in drainpipes, even in people's bedrooms. The mink have no shame, and no mercy.
Yesterday, on the advice of police, residents were locking up their cats and dogs, and mounting armed patrols on their properties. The mink have already taken out a chihuaha and had a go at some piglets. Locals have been warned not to approach them, if they feel a sentimental attachment to all 10 of their fingers. Landowners have been advised to shoot on sight.
With their dark eyes, long whiskers and startled expressions, mink look like nothing more than elongated guinea-pigs. They look, in fact, like little poppets. In fact, say wildlife experts, they are vicious hunters that can strip an entire henhouse during a nocturnal raid. They eat birds, mice, frogs and fish, and have no scruples about attacking animals larger than themselves. "They'll eat anything when they're hungry," said Constable Rob Ellis, a wildlife officer with Hampshire Police.
Now, nearly 72 hours after being released from cages at Crow Hill Farm, the mink are thought to be famished. Yesterday, they descended to the banks of the river, looking for lunch. These are versatile predators that can climb trees like squirrels and dive like otters. They can swim beneath ducks, pull them under and drown them. They are happy to eat fish as well as meat.
You'd think, really, that it wasn't the weather for mink to be out and about, that in these sultry temperatures they would prefer to stay indoors, fanning themselves, perhaps, or sipping a cool drink. But that is because one can't help but associate them with their best-known incarnation, the coat, which generally only makes an appearance in winter.
But not all of the mink are enjoying their new-found freedom. Scores have come to grief under the wheels of cars. The country roads in the area, choked with tourists heading to the New Forest, are pock-marked with little bloody heaps. Others have been killed more calculatedly. For these factory-farmed creatures are not only tasting the joys of hunting for the first time; they are also finding out what it is like to be hunted. Scores of grim-faced farmers were out with shotguns yesterday, protecting their livestock.
Mink, it must be said, are accustomed to meeting a violent end. They live on average less than a year, and one of the main causes of death is fighting with other mink. Conservationists say they kill for kicks as well as to eat. They even line their dens with the fur and feathers of their hapless victims.
At the New Forest Owl Sanctuary, near Ringwood, , Bruce Berry, the director, woke on Sunday morning to find a kestrel and a tawny owl dead, their heads surgically removed. Yesterday, a barn owl was killed.
"I haven't slept since Saturday; it's a nightmare," said Mr Berry, gun in hand. "They could get in here and kill every single bird. They can slide through the tiniest hole. There's no way you can make the whole place mink-proof.''
Shots rang out rhythmically throughout the day as keepers at the sanctuary scored hit after hit. By late afternoon, the scorecard stood at 30. But at the first word of a sighting, it was a case of the nearest weapon to hand. Peter Berry, Bruce's son, showed off a mink that he had bashed over the head with a garden hoe.
It was a pathetic, bedraggled-looking creature, its fur matted with mud, tail drooping between its legs. It had been lurking in a nearby ditch, and was thought to have had mischief on its mind.
"When a mink gets into a place like this, it's like walking into a supermarket," said Peter Berry. "It sees enough food for ten days, and it smells the fresh meat. If it was a wild polecat or ferret, all well and good. But this lot, they just kill for the sake of it.''
Yesterday a crisis meeting of landowners, gamekeepers and pest control officers was held at Ringwood police station. It was resolved, somewhat belatedly, to set up a hotline so that locals can report errant mink. But that seemed hardly likely to solve the conundrum of hordes of cunning and hungry creatures marauding around the countryside. Local police are weary of fielding calls. "The problem is that no one is prepared to take responsibility," said a police spokeswoman. "We think it should be up to the Ministry of Agriculture, but MAFF doesn't seem to want to know.''
The Predator Bred For Its Fur
Mink are members of the Mustelidae family of animals which includes the weasel, stoat, ferret, otter and pole-cat
In Britain about 50,000 mink are skinned and killed each year
Mink from North America were first imported to Britain in 1920 for fur farms
All other species introduced to Britain - such as squirrels and deer - are herbivores whereas mink are carnivorous
The mink makes its home by lining its den with fur and feathers from the victims of its forays
A mink can roam up to four square miles to seek its prey
Mink live on average less than a year and most die after fighting with other mink
Mink are blood-thirsty predators and are not fussy about what they eat - birds, eggs, small mammals, such as water voles (right), or fish
Mink can be found everywhere in Britain except north west Wales and northern Scotland
If baby mink are separated from their parents they become extremely distressed and gnaw their tailsReuse content