If you’ve been to France, the chances are you’ve caught glimpses of beaver-like animals swimming in lakes or rivers, or grazing on banks or roadsides. These are ragondins, or coypus, or nutria. They have a variety of names so take your pick. They’re not native to France so why are they here?

If you’re wondering what’s prompted this post, let me explain. I refer from time to time in my blog to the vast piles of old newspapers and magazines that we found in the grenier when we moved in. I dip into them occasionally as I’m fascinated by them, particularly the adverts. In a 1932 edition of Jardins et Basse-cours there was this classified ad for ragondins – coypus.

Ragondins de mon élevage (4e année). Superbes et vigoreux sujets en âge de reproduire. E Violette à Létrade-Gare (Creuse).

This translates as: Coypus from my farm (which is in its 4th year). Superb and vigorous specimens of breeding age.

So I did some research. Most of the following information comes from an article by J Bourdelle that appeared in Vol. 20 No. 3 (August 1939) of The Journal of Mammalogy that I tracked down, enticingly entitled American Mammals Introduced to France In The Contemporary Period, Especially Myocastor and Ondatra. (Myocastor = ragondins.)

Public domain pic by Axel Kuhlmann

Public domain pic by Axel Kuhlmann

Introduced in 1882 but really came into their own 1925 onwards. After the First World War and all its ensuing devastation people were looking for extra income. The silver fox came first, followed by raccoon, skunk, mink, muskrat, copyu, chinchillas and their close cousins, visacha, and opossums. Quite a lot of these schemes didn’t work out but coypu farming extended into the 1940s.

A chap called Pays-Mellier makes the first reference to ragondins in France in a paper he wrote for the Bulletin de la Société Nationale d’Acclimiatation de la France. He was breeding some in captivity chez lui in Indre-et-Loire. He wrote about them again in 1885 and 1888, and there were other articles about breeding ragondins in the Bulletin every year between 1890 and 1892.

The war saw an end to many small amateur breeding set-ups (there was no money for luxuries and quite possibly the animals were eaten during a time of food shortage as they are reputedly rather tasty!). The second wave of rearing came with a vengeance after 1925 when they were raised in cages, parks and semi-freedom. The enterprises were concentrated in central and south-western France also there were a few more widely scattered such as in Brittany and eastern France. By all accounts the animals adapted well to the food available to them and the climate.

Certainly until 1933 there was money to be made from ragondin fur and there were plenty of articles about the successful breeding of them, not only in our good old Bulletin but also other journals and reviews such as Elevage et Fourrure and the St Hubert Club.

The world economic crisis of the mid 1930s brought an end to the vast majority of these fur farms. Obsolete animals were turned out into the wild to join the ones that had already escaped and they’re what created the problem of the wild population. The author of the 1939 article, M. Bourdelle, remarks that he’s seen “a certain number living in good condition in the wild… this freedom appears favourable to them”! Only the future, he says, will show us if the animal “has found in France… a new home to its liking”. Well, it certainly did. M Bourdelle hoped that if the rodents became established in the wild, there might be some economic value associated with them. He also reckoned they were timid and gentle and seemed slightly affronted that some people reckoned they were a nuisance and should be treated as such i.e. trapped and killed all year round. In 1939, though, they were only fair game during the hunting season and only to those who held hunting permits. He hoped that ragondins would go on to “provide our country with a new and valuable game animal”.

Times have changed. The ragondin is now a ‘nuisible’ i.e. a nuisance. They do a lot of damage to banks by their energetic digging and have allegedly beaten up a few dogs rather nastily. They destroy aquatic birds nests, eat and damage farmers’ crops (particularly sweetcorn, which they love), eat bark off trees, They also carry liver flukes which can affect ruminants, and leptospirosis which can affect us all. The ragondin is now no. 1 in the list of the 10 most troublesome exotic species in Europe. Some areas of France offer a bounty for ragondins. When we first moved here, the Indre was offering €1 for every ragondin tail you handed in to the appropriate department!

So although they look rather cute – but only from a distance since close up you can see they’re just giant rats with bright orange teeth! – like many other introduced species, both plant and animal, they’ve invaded the native ecosystem to its detriment. Clearly they’re here to stay, thanks to folks in the 1920s and 1930s wanting fur hats and mittens. (Mind you, some people still want them. See this NYTimes article.) I suppose had they ever become a delicacy on the table, like venison and sanglier, then they’d be less trouble now but they’re not actively hunted and so numbers aren’t kept to a minimum.

And yes, I’m aware I’m being a bit of a pot calling the kettle black, since I have exotic llamas and alpacas out in the fields and several cagefuls of guinea-pigs in the barn. However, I have no intention of letting my animals loose to set up colonies in the wild. These days, fortunately, we understand a lot better the effects an introduced species can have on delicate ecosystems.

And to finish, here’s a dot-to-dot puzzle for a ragondin</a>!