That gal and her dawg: tales of a research coypu trapper

Location : Norwich

Jennie started working for the Coypu Research Laboratory in 1979, she was one of three trappers and the only lady. She tells us about working on the marshes and the wonderful characters that she met.

I started work for the Coypu Research Laboratory in 1979. I was one of three trappers and the only lady. At that time we were trying to work out whether it was feasible to eradicate coypus in a given area, find the best ways to trap them and also to look into and study the habits of the coypu and how they bred and how far they would wander and their general lifestyle.

I had no experience of that type of work other than being a country girl and brought up on a smallholding. My boss was Cyril Clarke who was from Surlingham and he showed me the basics of how to go about trapping coypu and also how to kill them humanely using a .22 pistol. Initially we worked through the upper Yare Valley from Norwich down to Reedham on both sides of the bank and also up the river Chet up to Loddon. We were using cage traps baited with carrots or sometimes parsnips. After my training with Cyril was finished, my working days were spent alone on the marshes in a land rover. We each had a different segment of the marsh to work on. We’d set traps on a Monday and we’d have to check them every day. If we caught a coypu we would be dispatching them with the .22 pistol and taking details such as their weight, their sex and if they were female whether had bred so that we could build up a picture of the type of population within that area. We did this work with the focus on trying to eradicate the coypu up until the mid 80s. In this time we proved that we could clear and eradicate coypus within a small given area. This was really useful information for the government as it showed that the coypu eradication campaign was feasible and could be a success.

At this point there might have been some discussion as to whether there was a need to completely eradicate coypu. There was a train of thought by some of the conservation bodies that in fact coypu did do some good within the Broads and I can certainly understand that opinion. There’s no doubt coypus did eat their way through an awful lot of vegetation which kept some waterways clear. The converse side of this was that the coypus would also go through a crop of sugar beet very quickly and the farmers were no friend of the coypu. In the 1970s and early 80s the coypu were still confined more or less to Norfolk and Suffolk so there was also concern about them getting further afield. If they had got into the Thames water catchment area, an eradication programme would no longer have been feasible. The fact that agriculture was such an important industry within the area and had to take precedence and because coypu are a non-native species meant that there was no doubt about it that the eradication would continue.

However, having realised that we could eradicate coypu from given areas within a watercourse, our role at the Coypu Research Laboratory changed. We needed to research the family life of coypus and observe how they moved about and how they bred. In the mid 1980s we started work using radio telemetry on coypus. At the time this was cutting edge science. Because coypus can spend considerable time underwater we had to use systems that were able to cope with being submerged so we liaised with the Fisheries Laboratory in Lowestoft who were beginning to use tags on fish to work out their movements. We made up little collars with receptors. When we trapped a coypu we would anaesthetise the animal which could be quite tricky and then we would attach the collars and release them. The coypu being nocturnal, we would follow them through the night using two of us working separately across the marsh. We each had a receptor to pick up the radio wave that the little transmitter was giving off so we could then use triangulation methods to pinpoint exactly where the coypu was. We would possibly have five or six coypus wearing the collars at a time so it would make for quite a busy night’s work tracing all these animals throughout the whole night from dusk in one evening right through to dawn the next day.

We’d try and change the collars every couple of months because we were very aware we didn’t want to cause any sores or markings on the coypu. Although they weren’t named as such each one would have an individual reference number so we did get to know the ones that were regularly being tracked and followed. When we came to the end of that particular programme we had to dispatch the coypus we caught again rather than release them. I knew I’d caught this female who we used to catch time and time and time again who had became quite a favourite with all of us and it was quite a difficult day when I did have to dispatch her, but I knew that that was what the job entailed and a job had to be completed.

At the laboratory at Jupiter Road we had pens where we could house about ten coypus at a time and we did get to know them very well. Although our boss wasn’t keen on us making pets out of them, one chap in particular who did most of the pen work would line them up and offer them a Mars bar which they would take very nimbly in their front paws and sit back onto their haunches and munch away at a with a huge look of delight on their face. I remember we had one big female in the pens who weighed something like 12 kilos which was absolutely enormous, but an awful lot of that probably was down to Mars bars.

I know years ago there was a rumour that maybe coypus had been used at the Chinese takeaways. I have absolutely no idea whether there’s any truth in that, but I do know that the naturalist Ted Ellis from Surlingham was renowned for eating coypus. I decided myself that for my husband’s 40th birthday party we would cook a coypu pie to offer to our friends and see what reaction we got. I can assure everybody that coypus are actually very good eating and I’d have no hesitation whatsoever in eating coypu now if they were available. I think if we’d have perhaps brought that more to the attention of people at the time maybe locals would have been a little bit more enthusiastic about helping with the eradication.

When the fur of coypus is properly treated it’s known as nutria and it is absolutely beautiful. The reason they were originally brought over here was for fur farming. As I knew that after the laboratory had finished with the coypus I had shot they would otherwise be incinerated I thought I’d have a go at skinning them and using the pelts to make a jacket or waistcoat for myself. I did skin several of them, but it’s a huge amount of work and I wasn’t awfully successful at doing it. I had several of them rolled up in salt to get the fat and the gristle away from the skin and then you had to dip them in a concoction and it was again a huge amount of work and in the end I found a lot of the hairs were pulling away from the main skin. I think there was something in the process I’d not done properly. I did keep those skins for many, many years, but eventually they got thrown out which on reflection is a bit of a shame. A friend of mine had a big pair of gloves that he had made which were like a pair of bear’s paws.

I don’t think the health and safety aspect of the job was ever really thought of when I was initially working in the 70s and early 80s. I had a .22 pistol issued to me which was kept overnight in a filing cabinet and later on in a little safe, but in the morning I’d just strap the pistol on and it would be in a holster on a belt on my waist and I’d spend the rest of the day walking round the Broads and possibly popping into the local post office and maybe even the bank in Loddon. Clearly you simply couldn’t possibly operate in that method now; the health and safety would go absolutely dotty. I never gave it a thought that I’d got a weapon strapped to myself and neither did the locals. Everybody used to refer to ‘that old gal and that dawg’ as we used to go up and down the marshes because they just knew who we were and what we were doing and the fact that I might be carrying a pistol was neither here nor there.

The dog was a Jack Russell called Toby and he was a little star. He spent all day every day with me. I had him from a puppy and he started out on the marshes with me and he got to know the scent where coypu were and on occasions he did find them. There were stories about dogs working on the marshes or gundogs being killed by coypu bite. With him being smaller than a good-sized coypu I was concerned that he would try and attack a coypu and a coypu would definitely be able to kill a Jack Russell if it pinned it down, but Toby would just bark and yap round the animal until I could get up to it and take a shot at it. He certainly used to be allowed to kill the small coypus though. All the carcasses of coypus that myself and my colleagues had shot had to go back to the laboratory and we were each given a number on a computer system to prove how many coypus were caught and Toby had his own number on the computer system because I used to put him down on the kill sheets as having killed coypu. So he was actually a member of MAFF – as it was then, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – at one point in so far as he had his own reference number.

A coypu bite could be dangerous to humans as well as dogs so you had to give them a great deal of respect. Like any rodent, their front teeth continuously grow throughout their lifetime and these teeth would end up to be a good inch and a half long and they were very, very sharp. If you put your hand in their way they would take your finger off without any shadow of a doubt. Your normal method of holding a live coypu was to hold onto it from the base of its tail and an adult coypu would be so heavy that they wouldn’t be able to turn themselves up to bite your wrist, but the little babies which would be the size of a normal farmyard rat would be so lightweight that they would be able to curl themselves up their own body and then they would give you a nip, but I never had any serious bites myself.

The UK was not the only country with a coypu problem at the time. Three of us from the Coypu Research Lab were seconded to France for a short time. I believe we were in the Loire Valley area, but I can’t remember exactly where we were. We went to a similar research body as ours to swap ideas and explain to them how we had by that time managed to eradicate coypu from large areas of Norfolk and Suffolk. I was quite astonished at the French method. Whilst we had employed cage traps on floating rafts baited with carrots and were then shooting these coypus, the French had a very different approach. They used floating rafts like us, but they would just bucket out poison ad lib onto the rafts with the carrots. A huge amount of poison must have gone into their river courses and meanwhile you’d see a Frenchman happily fishing just upstream or downstream, presumably taking home his catch for dinner. I couldn’t believe it and it was a bit of a shock really when we saw quite how the French approached the problem their end. As I understand it they have not eradicated coypu as effectively as we did and there are still coypu at large in some parts of France.

I think my overriding memories of working on the marshes are of the wonderful characters I met, people who have now unfortunately long-since died. They came from a breed of old boys who had grown up on the marsh – maintaining the windpumps, maintaining the dykes, often eel-catching, doing a lot of wildfowling, keeping cattle, keeping sheep – and they were true men of the marsh and the stories that they could tell me of their growing up on the marshland areas in an era that we’ll never see again. It was a huge honour to be able to spend time with some of these old chaps. I can particularly remember one character who came from Hardley near Loddon. He was known to me as Mr Porter and he was a gentleman in his seventies who had always lived on his own. He used to ride his bicycle with his waders rolled down to his knee and he’d have his old chrome – his rake for cleaning out the weeds near the pumps – attached to his crossbar on his bike and every day whenever I worked on that section of the valley I would see him. He’d always have about two weeks worth of dinner down the front of his jumper and he spoke in the broadest, broadest Norfolk with a huge amount of swear words in between, but he was a mine of local information. I remember asking him whether he’d travelled very far in his lifetime and he told me very grandly ‘Yep, I have, I’ve travelled. I’ve been to Yarmouth and I’ve been to Lowestoft and I’ve been to Norwich, but I ha’n’t been nowhere else’. It was common for people of his generation not to have travelled much. They grew up in a particular village and didn’t have much of an education before they got work on the marshes and they were very satisfied with what they did and their style of life and they didn’t have any reason to go any further afield. Certainly Mr Porter was a very content and happy man and he had no reason to feel he had to learn to drive or race about to maintain his lifestyle as he was perfectly happy peddling his bike up and down the valley between Loddon and Hardley and Langley. He was a very, very special gentleman.

I do still work for the government. We’ve changed our name – we’ve been rebranded – we are no longer the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I’m now part of DEFRA – the Depart for the Environment and Rural Affairs – and I work as a farm inspector for the Rural Payments Agency so I’m still connected to agriculture and I visit farms on a daily basis checking that the subsidies that farmers are claiming for are being paid out in a correct method. I enjoy my work, but I do feel that bureaucracy is getting a bit crazy. I think it’s time soon for me to bow out, become an old lady, go back to the marshes with my dog and enjoy a bit of walking out on the marshes.

Jennie Crohill (b. 1958) talking to  WISEArchive on 17th March 2017 at Denton.

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