Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Last Norfolk Coypu.

The rain is driving across the Norfolk marshes on the leading edge of a strong "North Easterly", signalling the arrival of winter.   These cold wet days mean Filming opportunities become few and far between.   While we wait for the brittle light that comes with the winter sun we decide to empty our loft of items that have been stored there and forgotten.  We sift through the treasures that once seemed so valuable and important to us  - it is strange how they have gradually transformed themselves from treasure into junk in the darkness of the loft. 

Among the growing piles of “Tip” or “Charity shop” I find a little book that belonged to my father.  “As I was a-sayin” by Jonathan Mardle. (Mardle is Norfolk for gossip
Jonathan Mardle was the pen name of Eric Fowler a journalist on the local newspaper, the “Eastern Daily Press” (known locally as The Norfolk News), he wrote about all things Norfolk.   The little book was printed in 1950, marked seven and sixpence, and is a collection of Eric Fowler’s articles describing his travels around post war Norfolk.  He paints fascinating word pictures about the Broads of a time when they were vastly different than they are today.

Two articles were of particular interest to me – the first, his trip on the freshly restored “Albion” in January, 1950, carrying cargo for the newly formed  Norfolk Wherry Trust.   Laden with forty tons of sand, gravel and cement out of Norwich, bound for Berney Arms and crewed by Jack Cates and his Brother George.

The second article that took my eye was his visit to “Wheatfen”, home of Norfolk naturalist (the late) Edward (Ted) Ellis.  He describes a colony of Coypu living in the sanctuary of “Wheatfen” safe from the trappers.  Every Coypu had a price on its head, or to be more precise, a price on its tail.   “Ted” Ellis considered the Coypu gentle creatures that lived off waterside vegetation, and he believed that Coypu actually helped to keep the channels clear.  I suspect Ted had never harmed a living creature in his entire life, based on the times I have met and spoken with him.
Coypu or Nutria (Photo courtesy of Alpsdak)
 The Coypu had few allies and in the end it was the trappers who prevailed and by 1989 the Coypu had been eradicated from Norfolk’s waterways.   The rise and fall of Norfolk’s Coypu population is quite a sad story.   Coypu also known as Swamp Beaver or Nutria were imported from South America to the fur farms of Broadland in the 1920’s.  They were bred in captivity for the soft layer of waterproof fur under their coarse outer coat.  Inevitably some of them escaped into the yare valley which suited them perfectly.   Rivers, marshland and fields full of crops were ideal for the Coypu, it is no wonder that they thrived there. 

Norfolk’s waterways were a long way from Chile from where the Coypu originated. They were strange looking animals with large orange incisor teeth poking out of their white muzzles.  Their ears and eyes were set high on their head to allow good vision and hearing while swimming.  The females had nipples high on their flanks to allow them to suckle their young while travelling through the water, propelled by a pair of powerful, webbed hind feet.
Living in the wild they had a span of about three years providing they could stay clear of the trappers.   A female Coypu was sexually mature at about four months and could have up to three litters a year.  Baby Coypu were born with their eyes open and a full coat of fur, they could be feeding on vegetation within a few hours of being born.  The adults consumed one quarter of their body weight every day eating Sedge, Reed, Water Lillies and other waterside plants. 
Photo courtesy of Alpsdak
 In the sixties I was working on a pumping station on Cantley marshes with a gang of Irish contractors.  One of them took his lodging allowance to the local pub and he did not stagger out until he had spent the lot.
As he had no money for his lodgings he slept alone, in the cement shed, on the marsh.
During the night, amidst the popping Marsh gas and the rising mist he saw a rat which he claimed was "bigger than a cat".   Next morning when we turned up for work he asked me if all Norfolk rats were that big – what he had seen was a Coypu.  He left Norfolk at the end of the job believing that our county hosted the largest breed of rats in the civilised world.

Coypu are quite large rodents, adults could weigh up to twenty two pounds and could reach two feet in length with an additional twelve inches of tail.  It was their burrowing activities that brought about  their eventual eradication.  They created networks of tunnels in the river banks which filled with water and became prone to caving in, this increased the risk of flooding.
Coypu are large rodents (Photo courtesy of Schieber)

Nor were the Coypu a friend of the farmers.  When waterside vegetation became less plentiful the Coypu moved into the fields of sugar beet.  They would work along the rows taking a bite or two from each plant leaving a trail of worthless crops in their wake. 
So the death sentence was passed on all Coypu, “five bob a tail” was the bounty and by 1989 trappers had wiped out the Coypu in Norfolk. 
Trappers Harvest (Photo courtesy of US Government)

Coming from a tropical climate Coypu were susceptible to frostbite in their tails during the hard winters.  This lead to infection and eventual death, but the demise of the largest numbers of Norfolk Coypu was due to the trappers not natural causes.  The trappers used square, wire cage traps to catch the Coypu, then cut off the animal’s tail to collect the bounty.

I would like to believe that somewhere in the more remote parts of Broadland there just might be a small group of fugitive Coypu hiding out, living up to their outlaw status.

French Coypu  (Photo courtesy Tangopaso)

Authors footnote
1. Coypu are quite common in Europe and America

2. "As I Was A-sayin" by Jonathan Mardle is still available but no longer at 7/6d.


  1. Ted actually use to eat Coypu. I took the view that they only ate the best of everything so were in turn good to eat.

  2. Hi,
    Have you heard of any coypu in Trumpington, Cambridge? I think we had a dead one in garden today. Very small - 6" with a 4" tail, yellow teeth and small ears high on head. The back feet didnt appear to be webbed though. I can send a picture but not sure how to.

  3. Well I don't know about a colony but I saw one tonight as I was driving home through Strumpshaw. It was heading away from Strumpshaw fen to the fields where some sugar beet is still remaining.

  4. A friend of mine saw one earlier this year (2016) near sandringham