Irish chief medical officer calls for mink cull as “a matter of urgency”
LIMERICK, COPENHAGEN––Not even Guinness bottle caps are flipping, let alone champagne corks popping, in celebration of the anticipated imminent end of mink breeding in Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, France, and perhaps even Greece and Spain.
Mink massacres underway in fear of the mink role in spreading the COVID-19 pandemic are at least as traumatic to animal advocates to witness as for the hundreds of mink farmers who, inured to killing mink by the multi-millions each fall for fur, are now reluctantly killing their livelihoods under government orders.
The big question, meanwhile, from both sides of the ditches of dead mink, is whether this really means the death of a major branch of animal agriculture, or whether the nations that allow mink farmers to keep purportedly uninfected breeding stock will enjoy big profits in future years due to loss of competition.
Fur farmers elsewhere hope for profits as European producers close
Fur farmers in the U.S., Canada, China, and Russia and elsewhere are presently poised to absorb any surging demand for fur from garment makers who formerly depended on European suppliers.
The Danish government, at last reports, was considering allowing mink farmers to keep enough breeding stock to jump back into the fur trade post-COVID-19-related panic.
The Republic of Ireland appears likely to become the next nation to order a cull of the entire mink industry, responding to the November 19, 2020 recommendation of national chief medical officer Tony Holohan that killing the entire captive population of about 120,000 mink should be pursued “as a matter of urgency.”
“The Department of Agriculture is in discussions with three farms in Donegal, Laois and Kerry,” confirmed Jessica Maciel of Today FM later on November 19, 2020.
“There are concerns,” Maciel summarized, that mink “could pass a mutated strain of coronavirus back to humans and negatively affect efforts to secure effective vaccines.”
Mink farming longer controversial in Ireland than anywhere else
Mink farming has been controversial in Ireland––and a target of protest––for perhaps longer than it has been anywhere else, including for reasons having nothing to do with animal advocacy.
The original issue may have been that mink farming was introduced to Northern Ireland from Britain by “colonists.” Escaped feral mink soon surged into the Republic of Ireland, establishing a population officially estimated at 33,500, initially often blamed for predation on poultry––and, improbably, on sheep, who even as newborn lambs are significantly larger.
Feral mink have more recently been blamed for wildlife losses, and are actively persecuted by the Irish government and ecological nativists. The preponderance of evidence, however, suggests that the North American mink introduced accidentally by fur farmers merely filled an ecological niche left vacant when native European mink were trapped out, or nearly so, in the 19th century.
Yet even after polls showed 80% of the Irish electorate favoring a ban on keeping mink captive, and even after the Irish cabinet in October 2019 agreed to “disestablish” fur farming in phases, it took mink spreading COVID-19 to solidify political opposition to what was, for a few, a profitable export industry.
Export now just $25,000 a year
In recent years, however, reported income from Irish mink pelt exports has been as low as $25,000/year, about a third of the Irish gross domestic product for just one person.
“The Irish government has faced increasing pressure to follow the lead of 14 other European Union countries, from Norway to Serbia, that have ended or are ending fur farming,” reported Jane Dalton for The Independent back in June 2019.
“The decision,” if and when made, “will be a U-turn for the ruling Fine Gael party, which has long resisted calls for a ban,” Dalton explained.
Meanwhile, Dalton noted, “Fur farming stopped in England and Wales in 2000, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland two years later.”
“Would have us all eating carrots”
In debate with longtime Irish anti-fur campaigner John Carmody on The Last Word, a Radio Ireland program hosted by Matt Cooper, retired thirty-year mink farmer Redmond O’Hanlon alleged that the likes of Carmody “would have us all eating carrots, ye would,” contended that gassing mink for disease prevention is cruel but that gassing mink for fur is not, and blamed anti-fur activists for introducing feral mink to Ireland by releasing farmed mink in 1961.
Mammologist Chris M. Smal, in a 1988 paper entitled The American Mink in Ireland, reported that the earliest mink farm in Ireland was set up in Killybegs, County Donegal in 1951. This mink farm, still operating, is in the extreme northern part of the Republic, about 30 miles east of Northern Ireland.
The first known mink escapes, or releases, in Ireland came in 1961 near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, according to C. Douglas Deane and Fergus O’Gorman in The Spread of Feral Mink in Ireland, published by the Irish Naturalists Society in 1969. About 30 mink broke out of the farm. Fifteen of the mink were soon trapped nearby, but 15 more reached the River Strule, from which mink within 30 years spread to an estimated 95% of the Irish land mass.
Mink, mythology, & “The Troubles”
The initial feral mink population was augmented by similar escapes in 1965 and 1969.
Fur industry mythology, as recited by Redmond O’Hanlon and Wikipedia, has it that “Three thousand mink were released by campaigners into the wild from a farm in the 1960s,” a hundred times more than actually escaped at Omagh. Reality is that there was no animal advocacy to speak of in Ireland until many years later, and no evidence that animal advocates had anything to do with the mink getaway. Sabotage of Irish fox hunts began in the early 1970s; anti-fur activism emerged in the 1980s.
Omagh, however, was among the focal points of “The Troubles,” as friction between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland are called, and the Omagh mink farm might have become a target for reasons associated with that.
While the terms of the projected Irish mink cull are being negotiated, at least 2,500 mink were culled at two farms in Kastoria, Greece, after one of the mink breeders and nine employees were found to be infected with the same strain of COVID-19 as the mink, according to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini. The vicinity, in the Kozani region of western Thessalonia, just south of Macedonia, has reputedly been known for fur production since the Middle Ages.
Mink carcasses rot in the state of Denmark
Even at peak, the Irish and Greek mink industries were never even a fraction the size of the now largely liquidated mink industry in Denmark, which before the COVID-19 pandemic produced about 40% of the mink pelts sold worldwide. The Danish mink industry, as of September 2020, employed about 6,000 people, about half in mink farming and the rest in other aspects of fur garment production and sales.
Exterminating the estimated 15 to 17 million mink in Denmark began soon after prime minister Mette Frederiksen and agriculture minister Mogens Jensen on November 5, 2020 disclosed to the nation that a newly discovered mutated form of the COVID-19 coronavirus found among mink and some mink industry workers, called “cluster five,” might be resistant to newly developed experimental COVID-19 vaccines.
Frederiksen and Jensen initially expected that Danish mink farmers could cull their mink just as they annually killed about 90% of their herds to sell the pelts, and that the laundered mink pelts could be sold. But with market demand weak, and more mink being killed, faster, than the usual pace, dead mink piled up at incinerators and rendering facilities. The Danish Armed Forces stepped in to bury mink in mass graves at military bases.
Ag minister & Kopenhagen Fur go down
Legal challenges to the culling order meanwhile brought an admission from Frederiksen and Jensen that they had overstepped their authority in ordering mink to be culled outside of the areas where “cluster five” COVID-19 had actually been found.
The Danish parliament on November 17, 2020 finally approved the cull of the entire mink population. Jensen, however, resigned the following day, after documents surfaced showing that he had known as early as September 2020 that he did not have jurisdiction to order the cull without parliamentary authorization.
The cull meanwhile brought an announcement from Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house, serving a consortium of about 1,200 Danish fur farmers, that it will be going out of business.
“We are looking into closing”
Said Kopenhagen Fur chief executive Jesper Lauge, in a prepared statement posted to the Kopenhagen Fur web site, “The government’s announcement on 4 November to kill all Danish mink basically means nothing in relation to the coming sales season. Kopenhagen Fur expects to receive around 5-6 million Danish skins over the next few weeks from the healthy farms outside the restricted zones. The skins will be offered at four planned auctions in 2021, together with approximately six million skins unsold skins from last year and the usual millions of skins from farmers in other fur producing countries.”
However, Lauge acknowledged, “The loss of the Danish mink production means that the ownership base is disappearing. Therefore, the management has decided to gradually downsize the company and make a controlled shutdown over a period of 2-3 years.
“I have therefore announced to the company’s more than 300 employees today that we are looking into closing a couple of years ahead from now,” Lauge finished.
Will Denmark keep breeder mink?
As of November 21, 2020 the Kopenhagen Fur statement had not been updated, despite the Statens Serum Institut,” the Danish government virology laboratory, having on November 12, 2020 “opened up the possibility to keep a small core of 56,000 breeding mink surviving under severe epidemiologically prescribed maintenance conditions,” according to the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] .
The Statens Serum Institut on November 18, 2020 further complicated projecting the future of the Danish mink industry by announcing that, “No further cases of mink variant with ‘cluster five’ have been detected since September 15,” suggesting that “This variant has most likely become extinct.”
An “extinct” virus variant can of course re-emerge later, as viruses tend to be constantly mutating, evolving and re-evolving in response to whatever antibodies an infected host organism develops.
But Danish mink farmers were left wondering why the government was in such a hurry to kill all the mink in the country, six weeks after the COVID-19 variant that produced the concern was last seen.
“The right decision”
Said Britta Riis, chief executive of the Danish animal advocacy organization Dyrenes Beskyttelse, to Newsweek writer Basit Mahmood, “The decision to cull the mink to protect public health is the right decision. There is no outcome that would spare the life of these poor animals. If they were not culled because of COVID-19, they would have been culled this time of year anyway to be made into furs. This happens year after year. We find the whole mink industry highly unethical. Millions of animals should not be crammed into tiny cages their entire lives just to culled, skinned and end up as coats.”
Wendy Higgins, speaking for the Humane Society International arm of the Humane Society of the U.S., worried that the Danish mink industry would soon be allowed to rebuild.
“You can’t on the one hand decide to cull all those animals,” Higgins told Mahmopod, “and then a few months later allow fur farms to just fill up those cages again. There has never been a better time for them to have a state-sponsored phase-out.”