Are You Fur Real? The Legacy of Fur Farming on Irish Biodiversity

Fur farming became illegal in Ireland on April 4th, after President Michael D. Higgins signed the Animal Health and Welfare and Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 into law. The three remaining fur farms in Ireland will close. Compensation will be given to the fur farmer operators. The ban has been called for by various animal welfare groups for over a decade. The impact of the fur farms will remain in the Irish landscape however, as escaped American mink from the fur farms have established a widespread population in Ireland.

The three mink fur farms in Ireland were producing about 100,000 furs each year. Fur colours in farm bred mink can range from black to white, but wild American mink have brown fur with a white spot under the chin. Ireland’s fur farm industry was small compared to other countries such as Denmark, with around 1,500 fur farms located there.  

The mink is not a native species in Ireland. It is s member of the weasel family (Mustelidae) and is a small, long, slender bodied carnivore. The mink with its dark brown coat and long brushy tail is often mistaken by people for the native otter. The mink is semi-aquatic, and its preferred habitat is along rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. As the mink has no natural predators in Ireland, the mink population has faced no opposition to expanding its numbers. Also, the prey animals in Ireland did not evolve alongside the mink so have no methods to avoid being caught by the predator which results in a large decline in prey species populations.

The mink eats waterfowl and other birds, and also any species of fish. The damage of this invasive species to Irish biodiversity is extensive because it competes with native predators such as otters and foxes for the same food sources.  Bird species which nested and reared their chicks on the ground, such as corncrakes, short-eared owls and barnacle geese, are vulnerable to predation by mink and fish species such as salmon are also threatened. The mink will not only eat wild prey.

Domestic fowl, including chickens, geese and ducks, are also hunted by mink. The American mink, similar to the other mustelids, can practice “surplus killing” when it encounters additional prey, such as when hunting in a chicken coop. The mink may kill more animals or birds than it will eat when it sees an overabundance of prey available. Because of this, the impact of the mink on poultry farmers can be massive.

As the mink population in Ireland is both widespread and well-established, the complete eradication of the mink from the Irish landscape seems nearly impossible. Breeding sites for endangered bird and fish species have to be prioritised for protection against predation from the mink. Native predators also have to be supported, such as removing mink from river areas inhabited by otters when possible for example.

The protests against the fur farming of mink in Ireland has achieved the aim of ending Irish fur farming but, a suspected deliberate release of mink by animal welfare activists from a fur farm in Donegal during 2010 would have only boosted the wild mink population. The potentially irreversible damage to Irish biodiversity caused by the release (both accidentally and intentionally) of an invasive species highlights the dangers of introducing new species onto an island environment.

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