The mink are back... and this time they're angry

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A WOMAN wearing rubber boots was struggling with the weight of a rusting wheelbarrow in the lane. As she approached, the air filled with a sour, greasy smell. "They're everywhere," she said, pointing to the already stiffened bodies of several mink lying in the wheelbarrow.

Mink stink. Dead mink stink even more, and yesterday the high-hedged lanes of Madeley in north Staffordshire were heavy with the most evil of perfumes after thousands of the animals were released from a fur farm at Onneley, near Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Police said that they suspected animal rights activists were behind the break-in which was detected at 5.30am when the wife of a local farmer awoke to find her yard full of the animals. Officers said those responsible used wire and bolt clippers to break through several fences before cutting the padlocked chain on a gate to the farm.

"It was a very deliberate and determined forced entry," said Sergeant Keith Alldritt of Staffordshire Police's rural crime unit. "At this stage it is impossible to say how many of the animals have actually got away. People are still capturing them all the time so we won't know for some hours just how many will have escaped permanently."

He said detectives were searching for clues at the farm and were in liaison with officers from the Hampshire force who investigated two similar incidents in the New Forest this summer.

While police inquiries continued, the main business yesterday was trying to recapture the animals. By nightfall up to 1,000 mink had been recovered by local people and other fur farmers who gave assistance.

Methods of recovery differed: The brave donned thick leather gloves and grabbed the animals as they rushed past. Local farmers and gamekeepers used shotguns and amassed piles of dead animals. Others were less effective and at times the rescue operation took on elements of farce and even pantomime.

"It's behind you," shouted one man to a woman staring intently into a hedgerow as one slim dark creature crept past her.

Farmer Len Kelsall, 60, who has bred animals for the past 40 years, said: "These people are literally terrorists at the end of the day.

"I am very open. I have nothing to hide. The ministry people always compliment me on the level of husbandry here."

Mr Kelsall, chairman of the 14-member Fur Breeders' Association, said that as recently as last Sunday up to 20 protesters wearing combat jackets and balaclavas had tried to enter the farm before they were moved on.

The Animal Liberation Front - which carried out one of the Hampshire attacks in August - denied any involvement. "No one linked to the group has yet claimed responsibility," said Robin Webb, a spokesman for the group.

"There are a number of people who could have done this, and not necessarily animal activists. You have to consider all the reasons this might be done."

Mr Webb claimed conditions in all mink farms were bad; the animals were kept in small dirty cages and suffered high levels of stress.

While police warned local people to keep pets and children inside last night, experts said the mink would be most likely to start causing damage within the next few days as they became more hungry.

There was at least one report yesterday of a pet kitten being killed. One woman said she and her baby were moving from the area until the mink had all been caught.

Local people said they believed the animals would make for local woods, many of which were home to specially bred pheasants.

Meanwhile, the captured animals were returned to their cages last night, their brief taste of freedom over. Many seemed resigned to their recapture as they snuggled up together, sometimes four or more to a cage.

n A wild mink was captured yesterday days after it set up home in a ladies' toilet next door to the Debenhams store in Cardiff.

The two-foot long male mink is thought to have arrived on a lorry delivering fruit and vegetables to a nearby open-air market. It may be one of thousands freed by animal rights activists in the New Forest.

Science, Review, page 9