Mission Impossible – coypu catching chronicles

Location : Norwich, Norfolk Marshes

Ivan shares his memories of his time as a coypu trapper for Coypu Control on the East Anglian marshes. He details some background on coypu, the work involved with trapping, and the wonders of the marshes while working through all weather situations.

I was a shopkeeper working 60 odd hours a week for the taxman and thought I would have a change. I saw the local press advertising for coypu trappers and applied. I had no practical experience of the work other than the fact I’m a country person; lived in the country all my life, knew where the marshes were and what they were all about and so on. Much to my surprise I got the job; this was about 1975.

Training was very basic. I followed a couple of other chaps for about a few days to learn the ropes and then I was on my own. It was ‘here are your traps, that’s your area, get in there and get cracking.’ Coypu Control ran on a shoestring budget in the early days: you supplied your own transport, clothing and even gun to kill the coypu. I had a powerful air rifle which was good enough to dispatch the coypu cleanly. It would be four or five years before Coypu Control supplied a weapon.

We had to look for signs of coypu. An obvious sign were the traces of reed mace, one of their favourite foods, which they chopped down and left lying about. Their droppings floated in water too. These were signs you could use to find out where the coypu were.

Coypu had two enormous top incisors which were living teeth. As the coypu chomped things up their teeth ground down, but they kept growing to keep the right size, I suppose. They were very, very partial to the greater reed mace – the succulent inner part of the stem, and also liked carrots. I never experienced it myself but they were carnivorous to an extent. They retrieved molluscs from the bottom of the river bed. I’ve seen quite a number of shells laid out on the bank where they had actually brought them up to open. You could say they were mainly vegetarian but every now and then they would have this break and fancy something more solid.

Photo courtesy Jenny Crohill

To trap coypu we had specially designed traps, about a foot square by two foot six inches long with a flap at one end connected to a treadle. You’d entice a coypu into this trap with carrots or something and it pressed the treadle as it went in causing the flap to come down. The coypu was unharmed. Our job was to check the traps regularly. If there were coypu they would be dispatched cleanly by shooting them in the head. Trapping was our main method for eradication; occasionally they would be shot on the surface.

Normally we buried the corpses on the spot, in mass graves on occasions. You might have 20 or so on an average day. They could get a bit smelly if we didn’t bury them on the same day. Later on Coypu Laboratory asked for quite a number of corpses; they were constantly looking at things.

 

Ivan Watts in the Coypu Control boat

We had a very leaky boat with no buoyancy aids or anything of the sort. You got in, put in your traps and away you went. Often I worked solo in a boat: sorting out the boat, sorting out the traps and trying to catch coypu. When you think back you think what a mad thing it was to do! A new system came in about 1980 with a certain amount of health and safety. We got an issue of buoyancy aids which is quite helpful because you’re probably wearing thigh or long boots; if you fell in the water they filled up with water and took you straight to the bottom. You would work solo if you were working an area of land, and work in twos if you were working the Broads.

It was all weather work. It was a bit tricky at times like with high winds in a little low open boat loaded with traps and so on. We had to turn back on one or two occasions. Generally you were paddling along with an oar, one at the bow and one at the stern, so we were out of the way of holiday traffic on the river. Our initial outboard motors were very well worn little British Anzanis but weren’t always practical to use. It was a brute of an engine when you’re miles from anywhere and it wouldn’t start. It happened so often we would have a long row home. On many occasions we had to break the ice in the river to do our job.

We worked 7.30am to 4.00pm with half an hour for lunch; it was quite a long hard day and there was quite a fair bit of physical work carrying these traps for instance. Initially I was concerned with the Halvergate Marshes and marshes nearby but I gradually found myself covering the whole of Norfolk and little bits of Suffolk and Lincolnshire. When I was trapping on Halvergate Marshes, the nearest I’d get to the marshes was the Wickhampton Church. I’d probably be working near the Berney Arms but that’s a good 4½ miles away from where your vehicle is. When you’re alone you think of that. If you blundered into a dyke and you couldn’t get out again. That would be it, wouldn’t it?

You could go all day and not see a soul. The marshes were divided up into areas which were overseen by one marshman and occasionally you bump into him. His job was to look after the cattle. Farmers would hire the marshes, place cattle, horses, sheep or whatever there and the marshman checked the stock in their absence. Very often they had to bring cattle up from the marshes to be loaded on the lorry; that would be a four or five mile journey.

I bumped into one chap at Herringfleet off the river Waveney who kept coypu as pets. He told me his daughters never had dolls but had coypu. He showed me a picture of two of these coypu side by side in this little child’s pram with bonnets on. You never saw such a sight in all your life. There was another old gentleman who obviously kept one as a pet because there’s a photograph of him with this animal round his neck. I would treat coypu as unfriendly visitors.

There was a reed cutter who really stands out in my mind: Eric at How Hill. He knew the marshes like the back of his hand; a real grafter. It wasn’t unusual to see him knee deep in water scything the reed down. It was lovely to hear the scythe going through the reed as he cut it off just about water level. He was a lovely chap to talk to.

I’m told dear old Ted Ellis used to eat coypu. I’m glad I never did because a chap I worked with kept a number of ferrets. He took the corpses home, boiled them up or something and gave them to his ferrets. One day he did that it killed all his ferrets. We never found out what the cause was but obviously there was something the coypu was carrying that killed the ferrets.

It wasn’t until after the initiation of the coypu eradication control we knew about coypu carrying diseases. They carried Weil’s disease which was quite a fatal disease. Liver fluke, I think. Certainly they carried a certain amount of diseases which we knew nothing about. We would be handling coypu and use the same unwashed hands eating sandwiches come lunch time – sometimes in the middle of winter across the Halvergate Marshes with nowhere to go but on the leeside of a gate post. Later on we were issued with protective gloves.

I saw an enormous amount of wildlife being a solitary person on the Halvergate Marshes. The wildlife was wonderful to see; like crested grebes and coots. You could pass by a nest of eggs, watch birds going on and off as you approached, and suddenly chicks would be there, trailing behind the parent bird. We operated in an area stretching from north of the Thames to Humberside, thousands of square miles of Eastern England. It was about 13000 square miles covered by 24 trappers. If we divide it up it’s over 500 square miles each even if you say it quickly. Where else could you find another place like that?

The eradication programme didn’t start until 40 or 45 years after they first escaped; not everyone approved. I didn’t experience anything personal but I was told trappers returning to their vans found the air let out of the tyres. Whether that was children or somebody else … I know only of one or two cases where we had problems with an estate owner because he didn’t agree with it. Although we had mandatory right of entry onto their land it was difficult to go up to a squire and say ‘well, look you here old partner, we got the right to come onto your land whether you like it or not.’ You couldn’t enforce that sort of thing. Certainly not everybody agreed with the programme.

We just caught as many coypu as we could; we weren’t monitoring anything during the early stage. I do remember on one day a colleague and I caught over 70 odd which was exceptional. The coypu population was decimated by the very hard winter of 1963. Nature being nature the survivors bred well. About 1978 to 1980 we were catching 10-12000 animals a year over the whole area. Their gestation period was roughly the same as a pig: 132 days, I think. They would have up to a dozen a litter. It was not uncommon to see a female coypu with a dozen little small coypu trailing behind her line astern.

I was with Coypu Control as a trapper for 13 years. Later, I was promoted to the dizzying heights of foreman with eight trappers to organise. These chaps I oversaw and trained weren’t all country boys though the majority were. An interest in the country wasn’t necessary but you would get interested because there was so much to see and do on the marshes. If you weren’t watching the wildlife there was the cattle and the flora changing according to season. Some of the cattle were quite friendly. Not the bulls. I was chased by a bull. That was a near shave. The old feller ran faster than me. I had other near shaves like falling into the water.

By this time things were more organised in general. Coypu Research Laboratory gave us the idea of what area they want surveyed, trapped and so on. We would start from the source of the rivers in the county and work the rivers down to the sea dealing with lakes and ponds adjacent to the river itself. We gradually saw the number of females being caught taper off towards the end. This set the scene; you knew you were getting the upper hand. Week after week of trying your best to catch coypu, putting traps out, putting traps on rafts to float on water, baiting to attract them and getting nothing. It could be months where very few coypu were caught. It tended to get repetitive, even boring. We still had the same number of trappers covering the same area.

 

Dr Morris Gosling ran Coypu Control laboratory and they studied coypu. They actually had one little broad at Calthorpe Broad which was fenced off and the coypu were allowed to do their thing. There was an occasion when we had very high wind which blew a tree down and knocked a fence down and out went the coypu. I could never see the funny side of that until later. They also kept quite a number of land animals at the research centre which they studied on a daily basis. They also studied the corpses of coypu I killed and inspected those. I don’t know what they were looking for though.

 

The Coypu control team celebrating the end of the campaign at The Buck, Flixton, Jan/Feb 1989

Our daily catches were checked by Coypu Control laboratory. They could see zero coming up day after day. I can’t say they ever really accepted the fact we were doing our job properly and there were no coypu to catch. Their model showed there were a number of females still out there, but these models are only as good as the information provided in the first place. If that was wrong then who knows? We insisted we did our job well. Of course, the problem was we’d gradually worked ourselves out of a job. It was initially a ten year eradication programme and we cleared it up in eight, so we saved people money. The government had some interest and had quite a large say from a financial perspective. Occasionally some people came down from town but it was a day out for them.

I was made redundant at 62 and didn’t do an awful lot else afterwards. I was too old to get another job and three years before I got my ‘enormous’ state pension! I did get a sort of severance pay which had to keep me going until my state pension. I didn’t make any money out of the job but then you can’t have everything, can you? I had a lot of wonderful experiences instead.

Ivan Watts (b. 1926) talking to WISEArchive at Hemblington on 21st March 2017

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