Public urged to report sightings of unwelcome alien Copyu

By Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, the Coypu has spread far and wide primarily due to escapes from fur farms
Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, the Coypu has spread far and wide primarily due to escapes from fur farms

The Coypu was in the news last week. Rated an invasive alien species, the appearance of the large South American rodent in Ireland is unwelcome and anyone with any knowledge of its whereabouts is urged to contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service immediately.

Colette O'Flynn reports in the atlas of Mammals in Ireland published last year that the first verified sighting of a Coypu in Ireland was in 2010 with a further four sightings in the south-west of the country up to 2015. The semi-aquatic non-native is now breeding on the outskirts of Cork city. It is believed that the animals are escapes from a pet farm or private collection.

The animal is rat-like in appearance but differs from rats in that it can grow to 1m long. It has dark fur with a white patch on the end of its muzzle, has relatively small eyes and ears and a big, blunt head with widely-spaced nostrils. It also has a shaggy coat rather than a smooth one like a rat. And it is quite distinctive in having two, large, bright orange teeth and webbed hind feet.

A plant-eater, it can decimate vegetation, including farm crops. It also burrows into river banks undermining both riversides and flood defences. And it carries a parasitic nematode worm that causes a form of dermatitis in humans known as 'Nutria itch'.

Originally native to subtropical and temperate South America, the Coypu has spread far and wide primarily due to escapes from fur farms. Today, demand for Coypu fur is at an all-time low. Attempts by farmers to establish markets for Coypu meat have generally been unsuccessful. Consequently, it is claimed that many animals were deliberately set free in other countries.

Coypus are reported to live for up to six years in captivity; probably half that long in the wild. They breed quickly; females can produce up to three litters a year. However, eradiating the species from Ireland while the population is small is doable. Letting the population get out of control could potentially cost the hard-pressed taxpayer millions of Euro in the long term.

Anyone who has any knowledge of these animals that may look like giant rats, or even be mistaken for Otters, is urged to contact our National Parks and Wildlife Service. First point of contact for sightings is Coypu expert Danny O'Keeffe, a NPWS conservation ranger in Cork. Call or text him at (087) 247 2264 or e-mail danny.okeeffe@ahg.gov.ie.

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