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Irresponsible mink release in Donegal poses serious threat to wildlife

Ireland’s largest conservation NGO, BirdWatch Ireland, is seriously concerned by the recent release of 5,000 mink from a fur farm near Ardara in Donegal, indicating that it could have devastating consequences for wildlife in the area and particularly for already rare ground-nesting birds.  Western Donegal contains some of the most threatened bird species in all of Ireland, and indeed is the last Irish refuge for the internationally important Red-throated Diver, of which only 4-8 breeding pairs remain.  Ground nesting birds are especially vulnerable to mink predation and their potential increase in numbers as a result of this release poses a particularly serious threat.

For example, current BirdWatch Ireland conservation projects focussed on breeding waders such as Lapwing and Redshank and seabirds such as Puffin, Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel have identified predation by mink as a considerable threat in some cases.  They are also likely to affect many other native birds and other wildlife, including, for example, our important Atlantic Salmon populations.  The prompt action of the National Association of Regional Game Councils (NARGC) and and of angling clubs in the area to catch as many of the escaped mink as possible is commended.

Currently mink densities are highest in the east of the country; however, there is “considerable potential [for this species] to increase its range and population in western areas…”, according to an NPWS report.  This latest release could boost mink numbers in the west and speed up their colonisation.  The west of Ireland contains many key sites for nationally and internationally important bird species that are now at real risk from this invasive alien species.

The development of fur farming is the origin of mink in Ireland.  American Mink, native to North America, were first recorded in the wild in Ireland during the early 1960’s, having been released, accidentally or on purpose, from these fur farms.  Peadar O’Connell, Species Policy Officer at BirdWatch Ireland said, “The problem stems from the fact that there are no natural controls, such as predators, food supply or disease, to limit the mink population, allowing it to grow relatively unchecked and filling the niche of a broad spectrum predator able to exploit many food sources and negatively affect native species.

Whatever the reasons for the release, allowing a large number of non-native predators into the wild is potentially damaging and should be investigated by the appropriate authorities.  The continued existence of fur farming, however, is the root of the problem and the expected closure of such farms in 2012 under the current Programme for Government is long awaited and should help to prevent similar future problems.

Initiatives such as Invasive Species Ireland have worked on identifying methods to tackle the issue of invasive species but there is a lack of a coherent national strategy to deal with incidences such as this release.  Alan Lauder, Head of Conservation at BirdWatch Ireland, said, “Incidents like this highlight a fire-fighting approach within Government in relation to invasive species rather than a planned and co-ordinated approach.

Alan Lauder continued, “This may also therefore be a good time to consider the possibility of mink eradication.  It has been estimated in a National Parks & Wildlife Service funded project that to remove mink from an 800 km² area would cost roughly €1,062,425 over a five year period.  This would need to be scaled up to eradicate mink from the entire country, but considering the funds required to protect our native species, domestic poultry and fish stocks from the threat of predation by American Mink, it would seem a sensible investment.  On top of this comes the threat of EU fines if Ireland fails adequately to protect its threatened wildlife, so dealing properly with the problem now makes sound economic sense and represents a substantial long term saving not just for the national exchequer but also for Ireland’s unique natural heritage which is important to us all.

Mink with eider duckling

American Mink with young Eider

(photo: Brian Caffrey)

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