Keep an eye out for this Linslade killer!

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)
Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

No shy and skulking creatures are these, but brazen and fearless, writes LBO reader David Heslop.

Dogs, cyclists, walkers, not even children will frighten off this beautiful creature - what are they?

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

Mink!

I have seen mink on the canal at Leighton Lock and Tiddenfoot, most recently on a mid-Saturday afternoon.

My father and I spotted it trying to keep a low profile on the prow of a boat, checking to see when the coast was clear so it could make good its escape, but seemingly unperturbed by the endless stream of passers-by.

They have thick dense brown to black fur, live approximately eight years, are semi-aquatic and live on waterways, and eat anything they can their paws on - crayfish, nesting birds and their chicks or eggs, fish and small mammals, including rabbits.

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

The male can weigh up to 1.5kg at its heaviest (in autumn) and is around 45-65cm in length (including the tail), with the female a bit lighter and smaller. It is easy to initially mistake one for a cat, but they have shorter legs and are slinky like a ferret.

Their dens are natural hollows in roots, trees and rocks cosily lined with dry grass, feathers and fur. They are fiercely territorial, with the males becoming very aggressive in the mating season, between February and April. Their litter of kits can be up to seven, born April - May.

Belonging to the family Mustelidae, unlike other members of that family - which include otters, ferrets and weasels - they are not native to the UK.

So why are they here? Where did they come from?

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

Mink by the canal in Linslade (Photo, David Heslop)

There are two species of mink, the European, which has never been present in these lands, and the American: the latter were bought over for the farming of their fur from the US, with farms being established in the 1920s and reaching their peak of over 400 in the 1950s, and no doubt there would likely have been some covert operations, too.

The presence of mink on our waterways is not as recent as people may think - many will remember the mass releases by well-intentioned animal rights activists in the 1990s if only for the numbers involved and for its prominence in the news, but most of those were caught due to their effectively becoming docile and domesticated due to the generations of captivity, and this may be why they are not as reclusive as their other family members.

Partly because of the irresponsible releasing of mink which did not meet the criteria of the breeders, as well as escapees, the end of the 1950s saw them breeding in Devon - after a slow start the population exploded and they were soon established throughout the UK.

Over time the feral mink are gradually reverting back to their more natural chocolate-brown colouring, having been bred to have darker fur.

Whereas they are beautiful creatures, it should be appreciated that they are invasive and have a serious impact on native UK wildlife.

If they discover a water vole nest they’ll pillage it until it is decimated, and they’ll even go into kingfishers’ nests on the banks of streams - perhaps that is why I have not seen any on the Ouzel in the past few months from the bridge on Leighton Road?

Nature is of course a very complicated system, but when an invasive species like mink arrive the impact on the ecosystem can be devastating.

A sighting should be reported to the Bedfordshire Natural History Society so the mink can be trapped and removed, and therefore allow the natural fauna to be re-balanced. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal to release mink into the wild, and any that are caught must be humanely killed - it does not seem fair to the individual animal but not only is our established fauna having to struggle with the loss of habitat due to increasing urbanisation, with the water vole particularly in decline, it also has to contend with it being predated by an invader which is now widespread throughout the British landscape.

If you are lucky enough to see one please spare a thought for all the other animals that live on the canal - as far as the mink are concerned they are just lunch!