An otter? No, it’s an American mink!

American mink
The American Mink is not native to Ireland but is now found in every county

MY RECENT joy at having seen a native otter for the very first time was dashed when I realised that the animal I’d watched gliding along a local stream was probably an American mink!

I’m not the first person to confuse these two creatures – especially when a mink is wet, as mine was, but what was initially disappointment turned to a grim fascination as I read about the exploits of the mink since it arrived on our shores in the early 1950s.

American mink invader

We live on high ground surrounded by mountains – the Knockmealdowns, the Comeraghs – and with plenty of forested areas, streams and rivers. That kind of landscape makes for a wealth of wildlife, and it’s pretty common for us to see wild deer, foxes, rabbits, red squirrels, pheasant etc.

But I got a real buzz last Friday morning while on my post-schoolbus, pre-work walk, part of which involves resting my elbows on a bridge over Glenkeal stream for a couple of minutes and just stopping to take in the wild world around me.

Glenkeal bridge
Our dog Dandy at the bridge on Glenkeal Stream. Pic taken by Becca

I was about to head home when I spotted a long, dark creature, with a long tail, moving through the low water by the riverbank. Without stopping, he glanced up at me, before heading under the bridge. Unluckily, I’d left my mobile phone recharging at home, and my usual companions/wildlife witnesses, Ava (almost 11) and Becca (8), were in school by then.

My first reaction was that I’d seen an otter and I raced home to read up on otters in Co Waterford, learning that they can be found on the Comeraghs, but it wasn’t until checking my Collins Complete Irish Wildlife (2004) that I realised it had probably been an American mink.

American mink tales

The American mink, or Mustela vison in Latin and Minc mhericeanach in Irish, actually comes from the same mustelid family (short legs, long bodies, carnivores) as the otter, pine marten and stoat.

In a tale that reads like the script for an old Hollywood horror B movie, the mink was introduced from North America to Ireland in the early 1950s for use in the fur industry – to be bred, killed, skinned and worn by people with more money than sense.

Things started to go awry for a number of reasons – minks are survivalists and started escaping into the wild, easily adapting and becoming prime predators, wreaking havoc on native species of fish and ground nesting birds etc. They are known for ‘surplus killing’, which means they often kill more than they can consume – and that’s a big problem when they target poultry houses.

They will live in any habitat that gives them access to streams and ponds – and I’ve just learned that they are active during the daytime, unlike otters (hence my sighting). They also look black when their fur is wet (the animal I saw appeared to be jet black).

Now found in every county across Ireland, mink are not a native species, in fact, they are classed as an invasive species because of their impact on the environment, and are treated as a pest by many landowners.

However, some others argue that mink have simply increased competition for food rather than impacting hugely on native species.

Deliberate releases

Amazingly, mink were deliberately released into the wild at times by bankrupt fur farm owners and in some cases by well-intentioned but, in my opinion, misguided animal rights activists, including a 2010 case involving the release of thousands of mink from a Co Donegal farm.

Mink farming was banned in Northern Ireland in 2003 but a handful of farms remain in the Republic with successive government ministers stalling on imposing an outright ban. There have also been calls for a bounty on mink in a bid to reduce their numbers.

Otters
Otters may help curb rising mink numbers

Like the grey squirrel, the mink invasion was sparked by the actions of humans. Unlike the grey squirrel, it’s unlikely that a native predator like the pine marten will present a solution, although it has been suggested that the mink’s main competitor, the otter, could help keep numbers down.

Whatever the future holds for the American mink here I’ll never forget my encounter at the bridge! To read an interesting NPWS report on the mink in Ireland click here.

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