We had been in France for more than a year before I saw my first Coypu. We were in southern France in a little village called Dieupentale, which is located in the Tarn-et-Garonne department of the Midi Pyrenees region. Suddenly, something large, furry and brown launched itself off the bank into the water, emerging a few minutes later to trundle up the back again. I assumed it was some kind of beaver, or even perhaps a giant water rate, but then later that week were at a gathering of fellow-boaters in Moissac when someone started talking about their dog having been badly injured when it attacked a coypu’. It became clear that this was what I had seen, and I googled Coypu to find out more about them.
They were imported to Europe from South America and known as a Swamp Beaver, are often classed as a rodent, related to the porcupine. Its long soft fur was once quite fashionable, and the animal is known in the fur trade as Nutria (the Spanish word for otter). Originally it was successfully farmed for its fur in many locations including Britain. Many escaped or, when the fur trade declined, were set free. In France and Spain in particular, it has become a major nuisance, causing damage to crops nd waterways. It feeds on plants in or near to the water and burrows into the banks of streams and canals to make its home and breed. Its burrowing activities were said to be one of the contributor factors to the collapse of the levees bordering the Mississippi, leading to the flooding in New Orleans.
The coypu can weight up to 9 kg, and grow to 600mm in length. It can hold and manipulate things using its clawed front fee, and we have quite often seen them floating in the water, clutching pieces of bread whilst they eat it.
Its young are born in the winter, and many are lost when their tails are attacked by frostbite causing them to die from subsequent infection. The young are carried on their mother’s back when young, and can feed from her nipples which are conveniently placed high on her sides.
In Germany the meat is sold for consumption as a low cholesterol alternative to conventional met. In many places it is reviled and hunted or trapped. Its long orange front teeth are a particularly nasty source of infection, and many dogs have died from subsequent septicaemia after engaging with a coypu along the waterways.
Their teeth are not their only unwelcome attribute. They also harbour a roundworm parasite in their intestines, which when the eggs are deposited in faces in the water, can cause problems for humans if they enter an open wound as they burrow beneath the skin. It’s not fatal, and the roundworm soon dies as humans are not a natural host, but the condition can be very painful until it clears up with treatment.
It’s said that the coypu has been obliterated from England, but some say that there are still a few to be found in Norfolk. You have been warned!