Mink are an invasive species that cause serious problems to British wildlife – Mat Manning sets up for an evening ambush after the pests turn up on his patch
Nothing upsets the balance of nature more than introduced species. Ecosystems have for millions of years evolved to function with the native wildlife they contain.
Suddenly plonking something alien into such a delicately balanced community almost always has a negative impact – it is like cramming the wrong cog into a carefully tuned engine and then expecting it to run smoothly.
Most of us have witnessed this first-hand with grey squirrels and the damage they cause to the woodland environment, but there have been numerous other harmful introductions in our countryside. These include ringneck parakeets, muntjac deer and of course mink.
Mink are mustelids, related to stoats and weasels, but significantly larger. They are predators that will take anything from fish to waterfowl and small mammals.
The type seen in the UK is the American mink (Neovison vison). Native to America as the name implies, these animals were brought to our shores for the fur trade and have been present in the British countryside for more than 70 years following both deliberate and accidental releases from fur farms.
I seldom cross paths with this semi-aquatic mammal, although they are abundant where I live in the West Country. Despite being common, sightings remain infrequent because mink are wary, tend to be nocturnal and hardly stray from the riverbank.
The only regular sign of them around my local haunts is the remains of fish that have been caught and snaffled by them.
One of my woodland shoots has a lovely stretch of river running through it, which holds a reasonable population of wild brown trout.
It is not unusual to find the fishy calling cards of mink along its banks from time to time, but their attacks became rather too numerous towards the end of last year.
Driving along the track on my homeward journey after a session on the grey squirrels over the Christmas break, I bumped into the lady who owns the woods, and she confirmed my concerns about the seemingly increasing number of mink on the estate.
It turned out that the feisty critters were growing quite bold, and her grandson had actually witnessed one dragging a chicken away after an evening raid on the henhouse.
As I am already tasked with the control of pests including grey squirrels, rabbits, rats and corvids on the estate, the landlady asked if I could do anything about the mink. I am a shooter who enjoys a challenge and so agreed to try to bring the unwanted visitors to book, though I expected my efforts to be based more around a trapping campaign than shooting.
After swatting up on mink trapping, I returned to the estate for a look around where the pests seemed to be most active.
Sure enough, the soft mud along the riverbank behind the chicken run was littered with the footprints of mink; all of them appearing to belong to the same sizable individual.
My main line of attack was to be two cage traps, nestled against the bank on the shelf of the waterline, which appeared to be the main mink highway.
Tucked inside a tunnel made from logs and baited with fresh fish, I hoped they would be irresistible to marauding mink.
Legislation dictates that traps need to be checked every day and, thankfully, the estate gardener agreed to assist with inspections on any days that I would be unable to visit.
Fluctuating river levels as a result of intermittent heavy rainfall meant my plans had to be put on hold. I was intending to peg the cage traps to the bank to stop them from being washed away, but traps that have leaves and twigs washed into them don’t always trigger, and I didn’t want mink helping themselves to the bait and clearing off.
With the trapping operation put on pause, I decided to try shooting. I have shot a handful of mink over the years, and it has always proved to be challenging, but that element of difficulty makes it all the more satisfying when things go to plan.
Guidance on shooting mink states that it should be done with a “suitable firearm and ammunition”. Mink are not particularly big, and a sub-12 ft-lb airgun should be up to the task of delivering a clean kill as long as you are able to get in close and deliver a direct shot to the head.
After giving the subject some thought, I decided to use one of my high-powered air rifles. It seems pointless not to use a more powerful setup if you have access to one and it can safely be used, especially when you are targeting quarry that could potentially slip into the water and swim away if wounded, and the FAC option certainly seemed to be the best way to prevent that from happening.
My airgun of choice for this assignment was my Brocock Safari XR. This .25 calibre PCP hits like a sledgehammer when it lands, and, with its output set at about 45 ft-lb, groups very impressively with 25.4-grain JSB King pellets.
Although I was very happy with my hardware, my first session on the mink wasn’t as carefully planned out as I would have liked.
The simple fact was that I found myself with a couple of spare hours on a pleasant evening and I decided to utilise them. Had I been a little better prepared for the task, I would have taken some fish or meat to use as bait, but time was tight so I decided to head out anyway.
My first port of call was the steep bank behind the chicken run, to look for clues in the soft mud. There wasn’t much to see apart from deer slots as the river was falling from a flush of high water, which had washed away the mink tracks.
Even in the absence of any clear sign, the stretch of river by the chicken house seemed the obvious place to target as it offered an obvious attraction.
I pitched up here on the outside of a bend which gave a good view of the river in both directions and provided cover in the shape of a stand of bankside trees.
After making myself comfortable on my beanbag seat and setting up my shooting sticks, I then used my laser rangefinder to ping the distance to some prominent markers along the bank. This would enable me to estimate the range of my shot without having to faff around if a mink happened to show up.
The first hour passed peacefully and without event. It was a lovely evening to be out by the river, still and with a noticeable nip in the air, and it was a joy to watch grey wagtails flitting about on the far bank.
The tensest moment was the appearance of a grey squirrel about 30m away – I had to fight the urge to shoot it because I didn’t want to cause any disturbance that might spook the mink.
Just as the light was beginning to fade, and with the cold really setting in, I noticed a slight movement upstream on the opposite bank. It initially looked like a flickering shadow at the water’s edge, but closer inspection revealed it to be a mink slinking its way in my direction. I must confess that I wasn’t really expecting to see one.
It didn’t take much movement to shoulder the Brocock. At this point the mink was probably about 80m away which, even with a very powerful airgun, was pushing the range too far with such a fidgety target.
I tracked the mink through the scope until it passed a large rock that I had ranged at 46m. The mink continued to weave its way towards me without stopping, and I began to worry that it would pick up my scent and bolt off before it settled long enough to offer a shot.
With the mink still framed in the sight picture, I decided to go for broke and click my tongue as I often do to stop restless squirrels in their tracks. The ruse had the desired effect, and the mink froze dead still as it approached the 40m mark.
I wasted no time in squeezing off the shot as soon as the crosshairs came to rest. The pellet smashed home with a crack that echoed off the river and its narrow banks as the mink slumped down onto the bankside gravel without a twitch. Job done.
Closer inspection revealed the mink to be a large male, and more than likely the one that created the footprints I had spotted during my previous visit. With its glossy dark brown coat, it was a beautiful animal, but it has no place in the British countryside, and native wildlife will be better off without it.
Bagging that mink was the result of an extremely fortunate encounter. Two more stakeouts failed to produce a single sighting, but I did manage to account for another smaller specimen in one of my traps. It will be interesting to see if any others follow over the coming weeks.