The Coypu [Myocastor coypus], also called the Nutria (the Spanish word for otter, and the name given to the Coypu's soft underfur) is a large semi-aquatic rodent from South America that was introduced to many European countries during the last century in order to establish fur farms. The scheme however became a bit of a problem, because keeping them safely in captivity often proved troublesome as Coypu are excellent diggers and can chew through timber like a beaver which, not surprisingly, resulted in large numbers escaping. And then later, when the fur trade declined, many were simply released straight into the wild without any real thought about the consequences of such action.
Generally they adapted well to their new habitat and climate and, in most countries, established themselves quickly as they are prolific breeders. Coypu are sexually mature from just a few months old and, as each female will usually raise two litters a year each comprising of at least two and up to nine pups, it is quite easy to see how their numbers can grow. Their only real threat, apart from man of course and a few young possibly being taken by foxes or stoats, is that their numbers will suffer during very cold winters with many dying due to their susceptibility to frostbite.
They grow to about a metre in length from their nose to the tip of their tail, and will weigh around 7kgs when fully developed. Youngsters could be mistaken for a brown rat and the adults are not that dissimilar to a beaver, although my initial impression when I saw my first one out of the water is that it looked like a small capybara with a tail.
The Coypu’s fur is designed to keep it warm and dry in winter. It has long, coarse, ‘guard hairs’ that conceal and protect the soft velvety underfur. The ‘guard hairs’ vary in colour from animal to animal, ranging from yellowish-brown to a dark brown reddish colour. The tip of their muzzle and chin has white hairs and very long whiskers. They have blunt faces and small eyes that are set high on their head so that they can see when swimming. They have long strong tails, webbed hind feet, sharp front claws and strange-looking orange incisor teeth. They swim both on and under the surface. Whilst they spend most of the time in the water and within their underground burrows, they will venture onto land in the evenings in order to graze on grass or eat bankside vegetation. On land they move slowly and cautiously, until they are disturbed or sense danger, at which time they will run, or even jump straight off the bank, to get back to the safety of the water as quickly as they can.
They live in extensive burrows that they dig into the banks of rivers, canals or lakes, which unfortunately can cause a lot of structural erosion and subsidence issues. The other major problem is that they have ravenous, herbivorous appetites, feeding on aquatic vegetation including roots, reeds and stems that help filter the water, which then has a damaging effect on both the local environment and the native wildlife.
It is, therefore, not surprising that most countries in which they are found consider them a pest, with many local authorities either controlling their numbers or taking steps to eradicate them completely. That has certainly been the case in the UK, where they once thrived in East Anglia, but where their presence was causing so many issues that MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) as it was called at the time, had to take drastic action. Records confirm that they were all eradicated by the end of 1989; since which time there have been no reported sightings anywhere in the UK.
That has not been the situation in France, or indeed in some other European countries, where they are still found in certain areas. In September 2015 my wife and I stayed in a small gite, situated in the Marais Poitevin marshland region of western France, that is right on the edge of the Canal des Trois Fossés. We had no idea what wildlife we would see as we'd simply selected the property because it was tucked away and had views across open fields. It was a pleasant surprise therefore to find that the canal was home to quite a large number of Coypu so, during the week we were there, I took the opportunity each evening, which is the time the Coypu generally start to become a bit more active, of walking the canal bank to both observe and photograph as many of them as I could. I thought it would be easier than it turned out to be. In fact it was surprisingly difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was very challenging from a photographic point of view as the setting sun was almost directly in front, coming across the marsh towards the canal, and with the Coypu on the opposite side usually in the shadow of the bank. In the fading light I was often having to use quite low shutter speeds to keep the ISO at a reasonable level. And this had to be done very carefully, and very slowly, and handheld, because the Coypu were extremely timid. There was little cover along the bank so, much of the time, I had to crawl along and find a place where I could see through the reeds. A tripod was out the question. Every shot, or if I was lucky, every sequence of shots I managed was a small triumph. The slightest movement on my part sent them scurrying back to the water. But it was enjoyable and it did give me plenty of time to watch them and, over the course of the week, I slowly managed to build up a small portfolio of varied images, some of which I've used here.
Sadly, at the end of our stay we were told that they may not be there for much longer due to the damage that they were causing, as a result of which the District Council had advised the local residents that they would be laying traps in order to catch and exterminate as many as they could. I have to admit that I could see why that course of action had become necessary as the path alongside the canal was so riddled with burrows in places that it was quite treacherous. But, as a nature lover and wildlife photographer, it was very difficult to accept.
After returning home I decided to read a bit about the species and to write this article.
We've been back to the gite a couple of times since that original visit, in July 2016 and again in June 2017, but it wasn't the same. Yes, there are still a few Coypu in the canal, but nowhere near as many as before. They were difficult to find and, not surprisingly, far more difficult to photograph. It's a great shame, because even though they are rather destructive they are quite endearing creatures.