Tony Martin chairs the Waterlife Recovery East partnership, and is Emeritus Professor of Animal Conservation at the University of Dundee. He manages a network of 100 smart mink traps from the Wash to the Thames, and is inspired by the transformational benefits to iconic native wildlife that can be achieved by citizen conservationists taking care of their local patch.
Mammal Society members will be well aware that some of our most iconic waterside fauna, including water voles, are greatly reduced or banished in the presence of American mink – a mustelid introduced to Britain for fur farming, and now widespread in the wild. They represent a very unwelcome legacy of an industry long gone. Desperate to halt the decline in water voles, and mink predation on kingfishers, sand martins and a host of ground-nesting birds, county wildlife trusts and other conservation groups have maintained mink traps and tracking plates on mink rafts for many years, but the long-term effort necessary to keep mink at bay has proved to be beyond the resources of most. Time and again, water vole populations have collapsed, and reintroductions have proved to be futile, in the face of the inevitable return of mink once trapping effort diminishes or disappears altogether.
To avoid any risk of killing non-target animals, traps set for mink are normally live-capture cage traps. These are great in many ways, but they must be checked daily for animal welfare reasons, and this can become a time-consuming, wearying burden, resulting in traps being used sparingly and volunteer trappers becoming bored and giving up, whereupon mink return and the soul-destroying cycle is repeated once again.
Until now, that is; a little white box has changed all that. Electronic monitors can now do the trap checking, and much more frequently and reliably than humans could. Within two minutes of a trap door closing, nominated responders receive a text message and email to tell them which trap needs attention. Used properly, these devices are 100% reliable and reduce the number of trap visits by 97%. They are game-changers.
It will come as no surprise to people living in the rest of Britain that we East Anglians, ever pace setters in all aspects of modern life, culture and football, are among the first to embrace remote trap monitoring and are rolling out hundreds of ‘smart’ mink traps across the region. Waterlife Recovery East (WRE) – a partnership of conservation, sporting, land- and water-management organisations and individuals – was set up to coordinate mink control work across East Anglia, with the aim of achieving eradication over a vast chunk of eastern England. Awards from the DEFRA/HLF Green Recovery Challenge Fund and Anglian Water, through our host charity, the Norfolk Rivers Trust, have allowed us make a great start. We have been able to recruit staff and hasten the delivery of smart traps (placed on standard mink rafts) to hundreds of citizen conservationists and NGO staff across seven counties. Excitingly, early successes in removing mink, and seeing the almost immediate recovery of water voles, moorhens and many other water-dependent wildlife, has spurred other organisations to join the movement and deploy their own smart mink traps. What started as a local idea is now spreading, with each new partner benefitting, and benefitting from, the work of its neighbours. As Aristotle astutely foresaw, the whole of WRE is greater than the sum of its parts.
Information and guidance on the use of smart mink traps is available on the WRE website (waterliferecoveryeast.org.uk) and we are happy to provide further help and advice on request. Sign up to our quarterly newsletter via the website, and also please let us know about mink control work in your area. We hope and trust that the lessons learned during our landscape-scale operation can be rolled out across the rest of Britain, eventually joining up with the good work already underway in Scotland and collectively achieving a mink-free GB. The opportunity is now there to put right one glaring mistake of the past. Let’s grab it with both hands and give our native waterside wildlife a fresh start.
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