The behavioural ecology of American mink and their control

WildCRU has worked for over 10 years on mink across Europe, and in south America, focusing on the behavioural ecology of the invasive American mink, their interactions with other riparian species, including the endangered European mink, and the conservation implications of their invasion in the UK. This work has developed into a long-term international study currently managed by Dr Lauren Harrington.

Originally found only in North America, the mink has spread widely beyond its native range, having been introduced inadvertently or deliberately by fur traders into Europe and South America. Initially they were bought to Europe in the 1920s for fur farming; between 1933 and 1963 they were also deliberately released into the wild in the former Soviet Union to establish a harvestable population. The result of deliberate releases, coupled with escapes from fur farms, is that the America mink is now widely established as an invasive species in Iceland, Scandinavia, the former USSR, Germany, France, Spain and the British Isles, and as far afield as Patagonia, Argentina.

Wherever American mink go they are associated with problems in the conservation of local species, because of their impacts on both their prey and their competitors. The most thoroughly researched examples are of the impact of American mink on the water vole in Britain and on the European mink in Eastern Europe. However, there is a long list of other candidate negative impacts of mink introductions, which includes, amongst others, concerns that they threaten the eiderdown harvest in Iceland, and impact on seabirds, voles and frogs in the Baltic Sea archipelago. On the west coast of Scotland, mink predation has had devastating impacts on the breeding success of several ground nesting seabird species, and has caused the collapse of several bird colonies.

Although the wide distribution of introduced American mink has undoubtedly had an undesirable impact on local communities, it also serves as a natural experiment, providing the opportunity to investigate ecological theory to an extent that would otherwise be neither practical nor ethical. Furthermore, the possibility of manipulating introduced carnivores (during control operations) offers the opportunity for studies that are not only of fundamental importance but also of practical significance.

The WildCRU’s mink project has been on-going for over a decade. Initial objectives were to investigate the ecology and reproductive system of American mink in the UK, and to determine the impact of American mink on the water vole in the UK, and on the European mink in mainland Europe. Much of this work, in addition to being published in the scientific press (see publication list below), is summarised in two reports, published by the WildCRU in collaboration with the Environment Agency and the Darwin Initiative, respectively:

The Mink and the Water Vole: analyses for conservation. 1999.

European mink, Mustela lutreola: analyses for conservation. 2002.

The mink project now has three main themes:

  •  The management of American mink, and their interactions with native mustelids, in the UK
  •  The diving behaviour of American mink
  •  The impact of climate change on the diet of American mink in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland