THE racoon dog, for those who hadn’t heard of it, is not a dog, or a racoon, but something more similar to a fox. Originally from East Asia, it is also called a tanuki and is an animal that is significant in Japanese folklore, reputed to be mischievous, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded. Not enough of a master of disguise, though, to have evaded notice as a key invasive species that could threaten to destroy UK wildlife.

How did they get here?

They’re cute and cuddly so they have a certain appeal as exotic pets – and on the internet are traded for hundreds of pounds – but, since 2019, it has been illegal to buy or sell one. Mostly they have arrived into the UK via this market. In recent years there have been numerous reports of escapes and sightings of them in the wild across the UK – including one that was killed last year in Wales.

Why is this a problem?

They can potentially spread rapidly. They were originally introduced to Europe as part of the fur trade and have since proliferated. In Finland, a million cubs are born each year, and they are held responsible for wiping out the population of toads and frogs. In a 2016 New Scientist interview, PA Åhlén of the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management declared,there is “not a single toad or frog in southernmost Finland”.

A study funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs identified the raccoon dog and the raccoon as the only mammals on a list of 20 invasive species likely to reach UK shores and destroy native wildlife or bring disease.

They’re not the only invaders we need to be bothered about, though, are they?

No, there’s also Japanese knotweed, grey squirrel, New Zealand flatworm, harlequin ladybird and countless others.


READ MORE: Scots scheme to get rid of invasive species to be shared globally


Hang on. All this talk of invasive species, isn’t it a bit xenophobic?

True. It does seem that sometimes when we speak of alien species or invasive species, there may be an undertone of fear and hatred of the migrant. It’s worth remembering that only between 10 and 15 per cent of invasive species are classified as problematic.

While researching his book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, Fred Pearce discovered “numerous places where biodiversity is increasing, and nature is recovering, thanks to aliens. And many more where interlopers that were once regarded as arch environmental villains are now quite at home and causing no lasting harm”.

So shouldn’t we welcome the racoon dog?

It doesn’t seem so. According to The Mammal Society, racoon dogs are high-risk threats to wildlife. They can “impact on biodiversity, the environment and act as reservoirs for disease, with potential impacts on human health.”