from The Times, UK

Wildlife at risk as 6,000 mink are set free

Thursday, August 10, 1998


THE great mink hunt was under way yesterday after animal rights extremists released thousands of the vicious killers from a fur farm. Police warned people living within five miles of Ringwood, Hampshire, to keep pets indoors and said that the area was facing a wildlife disaster.

It was estimated last night that more than 3,000 mink - one of the animal kingdom's most ferocious predators - were still loose. As householders reported the first attacks on cats and dogs, farmers were organising mink hunts and a team of trappers was trying to contain the carnage.

Experts said that birds and small farm animals were also at risk. A kestrel and an owl at a bird sanctuary near Crow Hill Farm have already fallen victim, but at one farm Suzy, a Jack Russell owned by Elizabeth Wiseman, protected 1,000 piglets by killing six mink.

The Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the release of the mink, which happened in the early hours of Saturday. Cages containing about 6,000 were opened and holes cut in perimeter fences.

The RSPCA condemned the release and animal welfare groups said the ALF operation was a damaging own goal because many of the mink, which were bred in captivity for export to the United States, Scandinavia and Russia, would die of starvation.

It is feared that thousands of young pheasants, released a week ago for the shooting season, will become easy prey. Although the animals are dangerous to humans only when cornered, they will attack pets.

Ringwood's small police station was inundated with calls about the mink. One was found in a rabbit hutch, another was cornered in a garage and a chihuahua dog was attacked. About 300 male stud mink, which measure 28in from nose to tail, were among those on the loose. They were said to be the most dangerous and could easily slip through cat flaps.

PC Rob Ellis, a wildlife liaison officer for Hampshire police, said: "We have told farmers to shoot the mink."

Although bred in captivity, they will adapt quickly and attack anything. "They are not shy of humans and could be dangerous if cornered. They are very aggressive animals and no one should try to catch them. It is going to be a complete catastrophe for wildlife in the area."

Traps are being set at the nearby River Avon and the Ministry of Agriculture has offered its assistance.

Police said many of the mink would never be recaptured - 200 were shot yesterday, including three at the New Forest Owl Sanctuary where the two birds of prey died. A keeper was patrolling the sanctuary last night and steel plates were placed in front of aviaries to prevent more mink burrowing in.

Ed Gurd, who lives in Burley Lawn, about three miles away, described how he trapped one mink after it attacked Nutmeg, the family cat. "It was a hot day, so all the doors and windows were open. It just walked in through the front door. We think it had its eye on our pet hamster. It ran into the lounge - we shut the door and it was running all over the settee and tearing at the carpet trying to get out. We used some bacon and bread to lure it into a conservatory, where it fell asleep.'

Nutmeg was not badly hurt, but has not been seen since its encounter with the mink. The Gurd family postponed a windsurfing trip to guard its pets, including chickens and a rabbit.

The mink pelts, which mature in the late autumn, are worth between £10 and £30 each. Terry Smith, 73, the owner of the farm, which was founded 40 years ago, said: "This was a mindless act. No-one who did this can have the welfare of animals at heart."

The isolated farm, covering 13 acres, has been targeted several times previously, including an arson attack in February. On Friday, Mr Smith appeared at Lyndhurst Magistrates' Court accused of cruelty to the mink. He denied the charge but said he believed the attack could be linked to it.

At the farm yesterday, where the animals are kept in 15 sheds resembling a battery chicken farm, thousands of recaptured mink were roaming behind perimeter fences. "When we catch them we are just getting them behind the fences - we haven't had a chance to put them back in cages," Mr Smith said.

The screams of the animals could be heard for several hundred yards. Mr Smith said he did not blame farmers for shooting his animals - and others came to grief on roads, which were busy with tourists to the New Forest.

"Pound for pound these animals are among the most vicious in the world," Mr Smith said. He was hoping the inquisitiveness of the mink would make the traps he was laying effective.

His men, wearing thick gloves, scoured the fields for stray mink. Linda Shelton, who saw the aftermath of the mink liberation, said: "They were everywhere. It was absolute chaos." Police reporting for duty at Ringwood found one in their backyard.

Mark Glover, of the campaign group Respect for Animals, said: "It seems unlikely they would be freed by anybody with true animal welfare intentions."

However, the ALF was unrepentant last night. In a statement admitting responsiblity it said: "Even if 1 per cent of the mink are to survive in the wild it means that individuals of the species are living a life free from pain, free from exploitation and free from abuse.

"Even if mink are being shot, at least it is quicker than the way they are killed in the fur farms for coats that nobody really needs these days."

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