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Coypu on the Broads

Coypu on the Broads
2010-06-15

Between the two World wars several Nutria (Spanish for otter) fur farms were begun in the low lying areas of the Norfolk Broads, one of which I believe may have been at Brundall. Nutria are more commonly known as Coypu (swamp beaver) and it is not the scruffy yellow brown outer hair for which they were farmed but the excellent water resistant and thermal downy soft nutria under fur for which they are named. It did not take very long for a few to escape into the wild, establishing themselves in the ideal conditions surrounding the farms, expanding their breeding areas across the whole of the Broads.

A cause for concern was their burrowing into the river banks and dyke walls, an entrance hole at water level led through tunnels several yards long leading back round to further river exits but also onto the land behind, it stands to reason that this weakened the river banks to such an extent that there was severe danger of collapse and flooding in the adjoining low lying areas.

At around a yard long these animals are big, although approximately one third of the length is made up of the tail, some mammoths are reported, their little ears and eyes are set high on a rather squarish head so that it can both hear and see easily when swimming.

With two litters a year of up to nine young, the coypu quickly established itself eating mostly waterside plants such as grass, sedge, reeds and water lily and helped somewhat in the autumn as these died away by large acres of sugar beet grown on land adjoining the river to facilitate easy removal to Cantley sugar beet factory by wherry.

The fur farms had all closed by the beginning of the Second World war which also caused river maintenance to be deferred until after hostilities ceased leaving them to not only get into a deplorable state but I imagine the coypu’s to breed freely until not only did they destroy the river banks but they ruined many acres of beet. A coypu is not interested in just the one beet poking its green tufted head out of the ground, oh no, he must needs waddle of to see if the beet nearby is just as tasty, taking one or two bites out of each and spoiling them, in fact whole rows were destroyed, and now the coypu itself needed also to be destroyed.

During the 1950’s rather ineffectual simple efforts were made to stop coypu entering the beet fields that included at Ludham digging out the softer peaty river banks and replacing this with thicker clay mud brought in by motor wherry from the Acle area. Skipper Jack Gedge of the motor wherry GLEANER was not involved with this but along with other wherrymen carried weapons on board of various description and he told me that he shot and killed what he called a muskrat, selling it to the local trapper who passed it onto a fur dealer out Kings Lynn way.

Several trappers made it their business to eradicate coypu setting large square wire mesh traps in and around the marshy areas as I suppose shooting them spoiled the pelt, in the sketch we see “Kaiser” the Dilham coypu trapper rowing his gun punt laden with a somewhat unlikely cargo of occupied traps. The punts normally pointed end got the rot and was shortened with a transom.

At Wildwood in the 1980’s I well remember seeing a family flotilla of around a half dozen coypu’s that you could set your watch by, swim away from one back water around a small island into another to nibble on the lush verbiage during the day and also occasionally coming across the brutes in the undergrowth. We did not inform the trapper who passed at times up or down river in his outboard driven dinghy stacked with empty traps but eventually someone quite literally ratted on them and they too disappeared. By 1989 it was reported that the Norfolk coypu was extinct although I have seen the odd one about, the last, sitting some time ago on some pilling washing his face with his little paws. With the increase in otter sightings now prevalent, some people seeing three or four a week, I wonder if just occasionally it is not a case of mistaken identity and that perhaps the odd coypu still lurks somewhere in the undergrowth.