Much ado about coypu


SINCE the TV series Bergerac ended, there’s not been a huge amount of drama on Jersey. In recent weeks, however, the Channel Island has been agog over the hunt for an illegal immigrant.

Last month a large rodent was spotted on a road and identified as a coypu. (You must click on the link to the Jersey Evening Post to see the least dramatic news picture of all time.)  It is thought to have made the 14-mile swim from France. It still hasn’t been found but if and when it is, it will probably be returned to France to protect Jersey’s own wildlife.

It’s a pity they didn’t think of doing that in England nearly 100 years ago.

Coypu (Myocastor coypus) are rather endearing large rodents (though the orange front teeth are a bit alarming). They are up to 2ft long with a 12-18in tail, and weigh up to 20lb. They spend a lot of time in water and have webbed feet.

They are native to South America, but were brought to Britain in the late 1920s to stock fur farms. They have three layers of fur: the outer long coarse hairs, a denser middle layer, and an inner layer of lovely soft fur which is known in the trade as nutria (the animal itself is sometimes called a nutria). You can see a nutria jacket here. 

As always seems to happen, it wasn’t long before the coypu started to escape. Unlike mink which will eat everything they can catch, coypu are herbivores, but they eat a lot – about 25 per cent of their body weight every day. And they eat the whole plant, roots and all. Another problem is that they dig large burrows in river and lake banks, which causes the banks to collapse. Plus they breed at a terrific rate – one female can have 15 young a year.

Here is a video about coypu in California.

By the 1950s there were two coypu communities in Britain, one based at a sewage farm near Slough, which died out naturally, and the other in East Anglia, estimated at 200,000. They devastated sugar beet crops, grazed reed beds to destruction and undermined railway tracks. Tractors fell into cavities in fields. A first effort at eradication started in 1961, but although the population was greatly reduced (helped by a series of cold winters), after the campaign ended in 1965 numbers increased again. A second campaign was launched in 1981, using knowledge gleaned the first time round.

The trapping area was divided into eight sectors. Twenty-four trappers were hired, with bonuses on offer for early completion of the ten-year campaign. In 1989 the coypu were declared eradicated.

I found this very interesting and unsentimental account by one of the trappers, well worth a read. 

So it can be done. I really don’t know why there isn’t a similarly determined campaign to eradicate mink, which have done a great deal more damage than coypu in terms of reducing native species such as water voles, toads, moorhens and coots.

Sheep of the Week

This is a North Ronaldsay, native to the northernmost Orkney island. It is a primitive sheep which has not been cross-bred with other breeds. It comes in a variety of colours. The rams have horns, the ewes may or may not. The meat is said to be delicious.

The sheep used to roam freely around the 2.7 square mile island but in the early 19th century the kelping industry, which was the production of soda ash (sodium carbonate) by the burning of seaweed, collapsed. Those previously employed in kelping turned to farming, and for this to succeed the sheep had to be kept away from the crofts. To this end, in 1832 a wall was built right round the 12-mile coastline, forcing the sheep on to the shore. The sheep therefore had to adapt to eating seaweed except when they are herded twice a year into nine small enclosures called punds for  shearing and lambing. Even when they have access to grass, many prefer to stick to seaweed. Their eating pattern is tuned to the tides, grazing at low tide and ruminating at high tide.

The wall or ‘Sheep Dyke’ is 6ft high, and is one of the largest dry-stone walls in the world. Since it was built the population of North Ronaldsay has fallen from 500 to around 50, and there is not enough manpower to maintain the wall, which is regularly damaged by storms. In 2016 the first North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival was held and it is now an annual event attended by people from all over the world who volunteer to help with rebuilding the wall. If you fancy having a go all you have to do is turn up. See details here. 

There are some flocks of North Ronaldsays on the mainland (where I presume they adapt back to eating grass) but they are still listed as endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Here is a video of the sheep on the shore.

You can read more about them at the North Ronaldsay Sheep Fellowship website.

Wheels of the week

This is a 1963 Humber Sceptre Mk 1, 1592 cc. The Sceptre was originally intended as a four-door replacement for the Sunbeam Rapier, but was launched in 1963 as a Humber while the Rapier continued in production until 1967. A MK IA was introduced in 1964 but the Sceptre body continued unchanged until 1965 when it was replaced by the MK II. A total of 17,011 Mk I and Mk IA models were made.

This is what various websites say about it:

‘The Humber Sceptre was the family man’s sports car of the 1960s. The 1600cc engine runs superbly, and helps the car keep up with modern traffic. It has a solid but responsive feel to it.’

‘The Humber Sceptre was the pinnacle of the Rootes range of sporty family cars back in their heyday. The Sceptre was designed to lend a little bit of America’s bold 1950s styling to the British and European market, giving rise to the wraparound window and the flared fins at the back, and together with the bold double headlights and amplitude of chrome the Sceptre was a car anyone was proud to own.’

‘These sports saloons, with that classic low, wrap around rear screen, were a real driver’s car. In my opinion, the dashboard arrangement was one of the best of any car of the 1960s. There are six dials mounted in there and it really is Rootes designing at its very best.’

It originally sold for £997 8s 9d (£16,640 now). Its performance figures were 0-60mph in 14.7 seconds, maximum speed 92 mph and fuel consumption 23.6 mpg.

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