When I left school I wanted to be a gamekeeper, but unfortunately gamekeeper positions were few and far between. I applied for quite a few. I even applied for one on the Duke of Buccleugh’s estate in Scotland, but none of these applications led to a job. It didn’t help that I was very young. I moved up to Norfolk after doing 18 months of landscape gardening with a firm in Suffolk. I got involved with the local gamekeepers on a big shooting estate, the Wroxham estate. They didn’t have any gamekeeper positions available, but I enjoyed myself helping them out and learning the craft.
Coypus were a big problem in that part of Norfolk at the time and becoming a real pest. I saw vans driving around with ‘Coypu Control’ on the side. So there had been some attempt to control them already, but there was then a ten year eradication programme started to try and completely eradicate them. I applied for the post twice with no success and then after I applied for the third time I had an interview and I was lucky enough to get the job.
I started in the February of 1982 which was about three years into the programme. I didn’t have a van at the time. I remember standing on the corner opposite what was the Castle Pub in Wroxham waiting to be picked up. Seeing this fresh-faced lad, totally green behind the ears, I think he wondered what they were doing employing me. He collected me and we met one of the other trappers at Ridlington. They showed me the runs that the coypu had made when cutting across the banks, they showed me the cut reed mace where the coypus had been eating, they showed me some damage on the sugar beet field around there and they showed me what I should be doing. I could see from that very first day that it was something I would enjoy doing. I stayed with them for about two months and they taught me as much as they could and showed me around.
I then got my own van and was let loose. When the other guys had seen I was safe, they authorised me to get a pistol. It was a .22 single shot PAV target pistol. It fired short bullets and we were allowed to carry 250 rounds at any one time with an option to keep renewing for another 200. I had to apply for the Norfolk Constabulary to get it and they did background checks on me. I already had a shotgun certificate and they obviously thought I might be trustworthy. There was no official training on how to use it, but being a country boy I’d been brought up with air rifles. Safety was always the priority. The other two lads kept a very close eye on me while I first had this pistol. Eventually I would carry it with me all the time at work; it was just a tool to do the job.
I can remember the first time I saw a coypu. We were working on Acle Marshes at the time, on Halvergate. We’d found lots of spores – trails going across from one dyke to the other – and we set some cage traps out and came down the next morning and we found coypu in it. The vast majority of the coypu we caught we caught in the cages. Occasionally you did see them out on the banks if you were there early enough, but they were mainly nocturnal. In harder weather you could see them out and about. You’d see them moving through the reed beds or feeding in a field of sugar beet or whatever, but most of the times we saw the signs and then set the cages. You had to go back there first thing in the morning to check them and generally if you saw the signs you’d caught a coypu. Even in the worst weather we had to go back the next day and we would never leave a trap set over the weekend for the welfare of the animal as they were live traps. We would then dispatch them with the pistol. A lot of the coypu went back to the Coypu Research Laboratory for autopsies. They would be able to tell how many young they’d had, what age they were, whether they were of breeding age and through all their research they worked out a strategy of total eradication.
I would say this was very successful strategy because at the end of the 10 year programme we were finished! The numbers of coypu got fewer and fewer and fewer the longer we went on. We hit them really hard to start with. Some people said that we’d never be able to do it because of the places that we went to, but we persisted. We set cages everywhere, every time we saw a sign or we followed up reports from members of the public if they saw one or saw any signs. There was a card issued with the Minister of Agriculture’s telephone number on it and if anyone rang this number we sent somebody to go and check it out.
I personally didn’t come across any organised opposition. Although some people of course felt they didn’t need to be killed, mostly when you explained the reasons people would agree it had to be done. In particular, if you went down the marsh road from Wickhampton church down to Seven Mile House on the banks of the river Yare it was very sunken and potholed. This was because coypu burrowing through the banks caused big cavities underneath so when the marshmen would go along with their tractors they would just sink so you had massive great sinkholes appearing. Unfortunately in Norfolk at times the sea pushes the high tides up and bursts the banks. With the holes in the banks they weren’t strong enough to withstand them.
We covered a vast area. You had the Suffolk patch, the Essex patch and the Norfolk patch so predominately I was based in Norfolk, but we went everywhere. We went all the way through to Stoke Ferry. Our boundary was the river Yare at one time, but then we had to go to Haddiscoe Island which was over-run with coypu when we first had a look at it. This meant going all the way down to Yarmouth then across the river, back through to St Olaves then on to Haddiscoe Island. I’ve been on the Sandringham estate, worked the rivers all the way through there. We had access to a lot of areas closed to the general public and the landowners were generally very good to us and they gave us every assistance. The local gamekeepers helped us out as much as they possibly could. At places like Hickling Broad we used to have to moor boats there. We tended to do this in the winter when there were less public boats around. From Hickling we did all of Candle Dyke, Heigham Sands, the two broads at Martham, all of the river Thurne, river Bure and river Ant. The coypu used to travel a long way as well. They used to follow the watercourses, especially the bucks.
In January 1983 I caught 32 coypu and in February 1983 I had 32 coypu as well. After that it tailed off. I went the whole of August, October, November and December in 1983 without catching any. We seemed to find pockets where they’d been breeding and so we had to go in there and try and do our best to eradicate them. Obviously if you can eradicate the breeding does they’re not going to produce any more.
Personally my favourite method of trapping was setting a piece of chicken wire angled across a dyke with two cages either end so when the coypu were swimming along the dyke it would hit this chicken wire and then it would be funnelled up into the cages. I found that quite satisfying. Another way that we used to catch them was in the culverts which was where the water used to run underneath the roads with the drainage pipes. We’d set four cages facing either way. We used to catch all manner of things in those. I’ve got a long list of things I used to catch. I used to have water hens, water rails, hens, ducks, water voles, land rats, coots, rabbits, hares, pheasants when set on the banks and runs. I’ve even got a picture of my colleague Ken Holmes holding a bittern that we took out of a cage that flew off when released. Anything that wasn’t a coypu, we would let go. The worst things we used to catch were cygnets in the spring. If you’ve got a cygnet going in one way it was very difficult to withdraw it the other way because its feathers would stick in the cages and all the time you’d have an angry cob or its mate sitting there and hissing and flapping at you while you released its young ones.
People did say that once we’d finished coypu we should go after the mink. Mink were brought over here for the same reasons as the coypu were, for the fur. Coypu fur was called nutria and in the thirties, forties and fifties it was made into a very popular fur coat. It was absolutely gorgeous fur; it really was. When they released the mink they did so much damage which is probably why now you don’t see so many coots and water voles around. There was never an eradication programme so there are still mink around today. When you go around the Broads you do see mink rafts been put out, mainly by the local gamekeepers. Coypu are vegetarian, but mink will eat absolutely everything. If you’ve got a family of young ducks they won’t stop until they’ve finished those off.
I’ve eaten coypu myself. I actually did a part-time job in a local hotel and they twigged what I did during the daytime and so we had an agreement and I got a nice, fresh coypu. I took that along one night and I skinned it and dressed it for them and one of the chefs cooked it in a casserole pot. We all tucked round one evening after our shifts had finished and finished it off. It was very tasty, very tasty. I think I’d prefer a nice bit of beef from Sainsbury’s or something like that, but it was very nice. Some people think that perhaps if coypus had been offered to the locals as meat that it might have been easier to contain them, but the trouble with coypu is they look too much like a rat and unfortunately I think people would have put two and two together and seen what they looked like and been put off. I think the people who wanted to eat coypu – notably Ted Ellis and I’m sure the marshmen – ate coypu anyway.
One of my colleagues made a pair of gloves and a Davy Crockett hat out of the coypu pelts. He skinned them out and dressed all the skins and tanned them so that they were nice and pliable and supple. I personally didn’t want to walk round looking like Davy Crockett so I didn’t bother.
I do, however, have a stuffed coypu in my living room now! That was one that one of my colleagues managed to capture. He had a very good friend who was a proper Norfolk countryman. He used to do everything: stick-dressing, taxidermy, load his own cartridges, dress his own flies, build his own fishing rods etc. He stuffed it for Ken.
We all had our tetanus jabs. That was very strict that you had to go down to the doctors to get your tetanus jabs regularly. If you did get bitten you had to notify your doctor and explain where you were working. Obviously with working along watercourses Weil’s disease was always a danger too. If you got flu-like symptoms or lockjaw or whatever or didn’t feel too good and you did go to see the doctor. I didn’t know anybody who actually got it though.
We were lucky enough when we were working on the marshes in that we got to know the marshmen quite well. I remember once I was working down at the tin sheds at Wickhampton and one of the cattle got into the dyke and the marshman was there with his tractor trying to drag this cow out of the dyke. I thought I’d be really helpful and give him a hand. So we lassoed the cow around the neck and he managed to pull it out of the dyke onto the track. Without thinking I went down and untied the rope off the back of the tractor. ‘No, don’t do that, bor!’, he said, ‘Don’t do that!’ And of course the cow took off down the track, me hanging onto it as best I could. I could run fairly fast, but I couldn’t keep up with that. That thing went through about three marshes before we managed to corral it against two fences. We managed to catch hold of the rope and tie it to a fence until we could grab hold of its neck and take off the rope!
I’ve fallen in many times. It was an occupational hazard. We used to wear big, heavy Bullseye thigh boots and the amount of times you’d be working by the side of the dyke and one foot would slip away from you and that was it; you’d get a bootful of water. If it was in the summer it wasn’t too bad because it was fairly warm, but in the winter it was absolutely freezing. We were working on Ormesby Broad one time on a boat and I leant over to grab hold of a tree branch to pull us in. Of course I didn’t realise the tree branch was dead so I went full frontal into the water. I managed to get back onto the boat before my lifejacket expanded. But, as I said, that was an occupational hazard. We were out all weathers. You didn’t have any choice.
Some of the winters were really hard, other times they weren’t. It depends where you were working. I used to park the van at Wickhampton church, walk all the way down to the banks of the river Yare. Possibly the worst thing was if you had strong winds. You could put up with the cold because you could put coats on, but if you had a strong wind it just drained all of the energy out of you.
The good thing about snow was that you could see the tracks of the coypu. The giveaways were the large pads on the back of the hind legs and then on the front feet you just had the five claws that you could see the signs then you’d see the tail drag as well. Unfortunately in the snow it didn’t do the coypu too much good. People kept on telling me the bad winter of 1963 killed an awful lot of coypu because they just couldn’t stand too much cold. Their tails would simply rot away because as they dragged them in snow they got frostbite and died, basically, leave a bloody stump. That was pitiful to see.
The marshmen used to walk absolutely miles and miles and miles. We used to see them first thing in the morning then perhaps last thing in the afternoon because they had so many cattle and so many acres that they had to look after. As time went on, more and more of them started getting quad bikes so that made things easier. Occasionally they might be kind enough to give us a hand with the traps on their quad bikes because a lot of the places we couldn’t get to with our vans.
I think I was the last Norfolk trapper to catch a coypu in Norfolk, possibly the last coypu! This was in 1986. Some people say the coypu are still about, but I don’t think this is possible. What is thought of as the ‘wilderness’, shall we say, is actually very heavily monitored. There’s the rangers, the Broads Authority, Norfolk Naturalists, Wildlife Trust etc. They’re not monitoring for coypu, but for everything and if they saw a coypu that would become big news now. The only way that coypu could make a comeback in this country is if they’d been released from wildlife parks or zoos.
I do miss the work I did when out trapping. You were on your own most of the time. I know it can be a bit boring especially if you’re not catching anything , but I used to pay attention to what was around us, keep an eye on the wildfowl and the ducks, flora and fauna and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I had seven years of coypu trapping and I had a lovely time. I got to know a lot about the marshes. It might not be a lot in other people’s little spheres of influence, but I think I did. It was a big part of my life.
After the coypu control programme had finished, I went on to become a member of the Norwich and District Wildfowlers Association. They used to shoot on a lot of the marshes that I trapped on: over Halvergate, Wickhampton marshes, down the Acle straight, Damgate at Acle. So I still went around. I kept my eye open and I never did – after we’d finished, officially finished – see any more signs of coypu.
I started working for a landscape gardening firm and we did a lot of work for Anglian Water then and a job opportunity came up with Anglian Water where I have worked for the last 28 years. This is still with water, but unfortunately not on the riverbanks and instead in pumping stations, water towers and reservoirs.
Despite missing trapping, I wouldn’t want to be doing it now. That was a different era. Time has moved on. I thoroughly enjoy myself now doing what I do now.
I’ve got lots of cuttings about coypu and life on the marshes that I tell myself I will one day put together in a proper scrapbook for people to look at as an archive. This includes some of the cartoons Tony Hall used to do for the EDP. One in particular I can remember quite well was when the lady dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse was big with her catchphrase ‘Walkies, sit and heel!’. He did a cartoon of that with a coypu standing at the back of a coypu van with this very strict lady which made me laugh. Another one was a coypu saying, ‘Ah, the glorious sound of leather against willow!’ ‘Wha’s there a cricket match, old coypu?’ ‘No, just a short-sighted cow that’s run into that there tree’.
Paul Frapwell talking to WISEArchive on 3rd July 2017 at Tunstead, Norfolk.