THEY were brought to Scotland to adorn the coats of Scotland's upper crust, only to escape and wreak havoc among the native wildlife.

For decades American mink shipped to these shores to be farmed for their fur have driven birds from their nesting grounds after breaking free and going feral. 

But now victory has been declared in battle against the invasive species in one of the country's wildest regions following a 17-year long eradication campaign. 

Wildlife which had been on the retreat in the Outer Hebrides is reported to be flocking back to its traditional breeding grounds, bringing a boost to tourism and restoring the sound of birdsong to colonies which fell silent years go. 

Populations of terns, waders, divers and ducks - which were all previously on the mink's menu - have rebounded after a concerted effort was made to capture thousands of mink roaming free and reduce the numbers on the loose to a bare handful. 


Arctic terns in flight

The success of the programme is a rare example of a successful pushback against a foreign species which had become entrenched in its new habitat.

American mink are famed for their fur and have been farmed across the world for decades. 

Approximately a foot long, and said to resemble otters with fluffy tails, the animals are voracious, semi-aquatic carnivores which prey on the eggs of ground-nesting birds while competing with them for fish and shellfish. 

They were introduced to the UK in the 1950s and fur farms were established on the Isle of Lewis in the 1960s. These soon went out of business, but mink escaped and quickly spread across the outer islands.


Small scale control operations were carried out by sporting estates and an attempt was made by SNH to prevent the animals' population spreading south, but these measures had little effect. 

By 1999 breeding populations of mink were thriving on North Uist and Benbecula and, while fur farming was banned in the UK in 2,000, numbers of mink in the wild reached a greater density that those seen in similar locations in North America.  

However, since the start of the Hebridean Mink Project in 2001, almost 2,200 have been caught by trappers working full-time. Numbers have now dwindled to such an extent that only two non-breeding females and a few associated males were caught in Lewis and Harris in the past 18 months.


A read-throated diver and her chick

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which mounted the campaign against the feral mammals, said that they have been successfully cleared from an area the size of Fife which includes Harris, Lewis Benbecula and both North and South Uist.  

SNH Chairman Mike Cantlay, said: “We are delighted that all the hard work has been successful for the nature of the Hebrides. 

"At the project’s height a group of just 12 core SNH staff worked as teams of trappers to remove mink, and help bring back native birds to one of the remotest, wildest landscapes anywhere in Scotland.”

The successful programme has also delighted locals, who are thrilled to see the return of wildlife lost to the minks' appetites.

Murray Macleod, an operator with tourist boat provider SeaTrek, said: “Boat operators are already starting to see the results of the mink project.

"We have changed our tourist routes this year, because in places where there used to be no bird populations to view; now we are seeing colonies of terns with chicks.

"It’s been an incredible boost to local tourism – and of course you can’t top the delight on visitors’ faces when they see our native birds thriving.”