Ministers to act over mink and other 'aliens'

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Alien plant and animal species, including escaped mink, crayfish and Japanese weeds capable of breaking through concrete, will be subject to fresh curbs under plans being drawn up by ministers.

Alien plant and animal species, including escaped mink, crayfish and Japanese weeds capable of breaking through concrete, will be subject to fresh curbs under plans being drawn up by ministers.

The Government is planning to introduce new penalties for zoos and owners of exotic animals, including wild cats and iguanas, who allow them to escape into the countryside. The widespread review, outlined in the forthcoming rural White Paper, will also include measures to stop the spread of invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed, which grows to 10ft tall, can break through asphalt and takes three years to eliminate with weed killer.

Ministers are consideringmaking the eradication of aggressive foreign plants, birds, animals and crustaceans compulsory. Present laws have proved inadequate to stop the spread of invasive plants and animals such as mink, whose population has exploded to at least 110,000, harming their main food source, water voles.

A draft copy of the rural White Paper says the Government plans to "review the statutes and procedures dealing with the control of alien and invasive species".

The policy review, to be started in the new year, will include measures to stop smaller British species, such as crayfish, coming under attack from aggressive foreign intruders.

Laws may be introduced to remove animals such as hedgehogs, which have migrated to parts of the UK where they are not native, with disastrous effects on weaker species.

The red swamp crayfish, which is double the size of native species, escaped from fish farms where it was introduced in the 1970s. The American invertebrate bred in Britain's streams and rivers, attacking and killing the smaller British white-clawed crayfish, which is now an endangered species.

The New Zealand flatworm introduced into Britain 30 years ago eats British earthworms, which are crucial for breathing air into the soil.

Animals and plants imported from abroad and released are the greatest threat, alongside destruction of natural habitats, to Britain's biodiversity. The review will look at whether culling could be used more widely to control foreign animals that threaten native breeds. It will consider animals and birds such as the American ruddy duck, which is being culled to stop it mating with endangered European birds. About 4,000 ruddy ducks are to be shot in the WestMidlands, Scotland and Anglesey in the spring to stop them breeding with European white-headed ducks in Spain.

The Government has been criticised for giving unclear guidelines on how to deal with alien species, including wild animals, such as big cats and beavers, released by owners who cannot cope.

The review will look at tougher penalties for owners who fail to contain their pets or stop the release of non-native species, such as Canada geese and alligator-like caimans, which have been abandoned after outgrowing their tanks.

Iguanas, which are unlikely to survive Britain's winters, have been found in residential areas. In the village of Lamesley, Tyne and Wear, one was seen basking in a tree. Another iguana, Spike, who was 4ft long, had to be seized by police after escaping from its owner's home in St Austell, Cornwall. Spike was feared to have an unusually aggressive reaction to menstruating women, whose hormones he could detect.

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