The European mink is back - a small hunter returns home
Project for the reintroduction of the European mink in Germany
Thinking of highly endangered species and ecosystems, we usually consider the far off tropical forests or the species-rich coral reefs. We think of exotic birds or little known primates, but few of us think of our neighbourhood. Yet, even here, in front of our door, wildlife is being threatened and many native species are on the brink of extinction.
Such a fate threatened one small, agile, water-loving hunter - the European mink (Mustela lutreola). Formerly it used to be widespread throughout Europe, with a distribution expanding from Spain in the west to Ural Mountains in the east, from Finland to the Black Sea. However, the mink population has been severely reduced throughout the last 150 years. Primarily it was the over-hunting that contributed considerably to the minks' decline. Because its dark shiny fur was highly demanded, tens of thousands ended up at the markets annually.
Another key factor for the extinction of the mink was the loss of its natural habitats. Both increasing industrialization and agricultural development caused significant changes in land use and degradation of native freshwater and terrestrial habitats. Marshes and swamps were drained, streams were polluted, and watercourses were straightened and canalized.
In addition, the native mink was threatened by the introduction of an alien species: the American mink. These martens escaped or were intentionally released from mink farms. Because American minks are larger and less demanding, they replaced their European relatives.
European minks need clear water where they hunt on mice, fish and other prey.
As a result of these processes, the mink's current range includes only small isolated populations and the species is regarded as one of the most endangered mammals in Europe. In Germany it has been considered extinct since 1925. But now a new chance has risen: a reintroduction project for the European mink has been started in Germany. The little marten is coming back home.
The project is taking place at the Steinhuder Meer, the largest inland lake in north-western Germany. Working in close cooperation, the Environmental Conservation Station Steinhuder Meer (ÖSSM / Ökologische Schutzstation Steinhuder Meer e.V.), the Wildlife and Species Conservation Centre in Sachsenhagen (Wildtier- und Artenschutzstation e.V.) and EuroNerz e.V. unite their efforts to bring the European mink back to Germany.
In the first enclosure minks are raised and prepared for their subsequent reintroduction into the natural habitat. This "off show" breeding enclosure is not accessible for visitors: breeding animals and their offspring should not be disturbed. For the successful reintroduction into the wild it is important that the animals have as little contact to humans as possible.
Therefore, a second enclosure on the station grounds gives visitors a chance to see minks in near-natural environment and raises awareness of the species' conservation and thread status. This facility is situated on the route of an already existing nature information trail and is therefore integrated in the overall environmental education concept of the wildlife station. The near-natural glass fence enclosure will enable every visitor, from young children to elder guests, to observe the fascinating animals close up. Additionally, information boards explain in detail the biology of the animals and provide information about the reintroduction project.
The official opening ceremony took place end of June 2010. The station manager Dr. Florian Brandes welcomed numerous guests that are involved in the project. Dr. Brandes gave special thanks to the representatives of the Lower Saxony Ministry of Environment, Stiftung Artenschutz and Nestlé-Schöller who had financed the enclosure construction of at the station. He also thanked all the district and regional authorities for their support.