This is a “hunting” of sorts. Killing coypu in the small village of St Just. The coypu, originally bred for their skins, “escaped” from their farm and multiplied. They are a real pest for local farmers and market gardeners, whose fields or smallholdings are bordered by the local river and canal. Let’s take a trip to St Just, to meet the man charged with killing the Coypu.
Slaugther In St Just – meeting Georges Minchin, the Coypu killer.
Welcome St Just in the Cher. A sedate and picturesque village of 600 souls nestling on the banks of the meandering Auron river, this is as « Douce » as la Douce France can get. Over the past few years though, St Just has been the scene of mass slaughter. The killing has been carried out by one man: Georges Minchin.
As we stroll along the banks of the Canal du Berry that runs alongside the river, Monsieur Minchin talks openly and honestly about his « bloody » activities. The affable Berrichon has no qualms or regrets. 850 « executions » over the past nine years, all carried out with the approval of the local authorities. Just what exactly is happening in St Just? Rest assured, this is not the Killing Fields, and Mr Minchin is no bloodthirsty war criminal, he is in fact the local Coypu catcher. St Just is overrun with Coypu. The semi aquatic beaver-like creatures may look cute to some, but to the residents of St Just they are pests, destroying the local canal bank, and eating their way through the crops of farmers and the numerous local market gardeners.
Here we are in St Just in the heart of the Cher, what makes conditions in your village so conducive to coypu?
Well, we’ve got the river Auron that flows through the village. Parallel to the river is the canal du Berry, and in between the two is a huge pond fed by the river. Coypus love ponds and even canals, they don’t like to swim in fast flowing water. You’ll never find a coypu in a riverbank. However they love canal banks. This place is a coypu paradise. They make their burrows in the canal bank, they swim in the pond and all around they have an inexhaustible supply of food from the adjoining fields and market gardens.
What have you got against coypu?
Nothing personally. I’ve actually got quite a soft spot for the creatures. People who don’t know coypus, think they are dangerous, because they look like oversize rats, they associate them with rats, but they are not even part of the same family. In fact the animals are quite docile, and they can play a valuable environmental role. Coypus are herbivores, and every year they chomp their way through tons of weeds that would otherwise clog up the canal and the ponds around here.
If coypus can help the environment, why kill them?
Plenty of reasons. Firstly because of their sheer numbers. Coypus breed all year. « Madame Coypu » can produce two litters a year of up five or six babies. Coypus also have no natural predators. Sometimes a fox or a dog might bag a baby coypu, but there is nothing round here apart from me to control coypu numbers. Secondly, we have to keep numbers down due to the damage the creatures cause.
What kind of damage?
Coypus live in burrows in and a long the canal bank. Coypus like to dig long and deep, sometimes they can go four metres down and six or seven metres along. Their incessant burrowing means that the canal bank is riddled with galleries. At some points the digging is so bad that the levee has broken and water has come gushing out the canal. In other places we have had to make the canal bank off limits to the public. Before the erosion got really bad, anglers could park their cars on the canal bank. Not any more though, the bank is too weak to take the weight of a car. A few years ago, we put up « no parking » signs all along the levees. One motorist ignored the signs, he drove his car up on the bank, and it « disappeared » through four metres of Coypu burrows. The Coypu also destroy the Poplar trees that were planted along the canal bank. They are very partial to the roots; they gnaw away at them with their huge front teeth. In time this kills the trees, or eventually they become so weak that they fall down, or we have to cut them down.
How do you go about trapping the Coypu?
That’s quite easy. We set special cages along the bank, that we bait with half an apple, Coypu are very partial to apple. Once inside, the cage closes and the Coypu is a prisoner. Everyday, I come out, pick up the traps, then at a discreet distance, I shoot the coypu – one bullet through the head, and that’s it. Since, 2000 when I started this job, I’ve killed about 850 coypu.
What do you do with dead coypu? They were originally bred for their fur, and in some countries they are even eaten. I know that coypu pâté is a delicacy in these parts.
We just bury them. We don’t do any coypu spin offs. I know there are people round here who make pâté, it can be quite tasty, but I’m not a great fan of it.
How did you get the job?
Well first, this isn’t really a job. This is a service I provide for the « commune ». I’m not paid for this. It all started out as neighbourly gesture. I was fed up with Coypu chomping heir way through my vegetable garden, so I decided to start trapping them. Soon I was doing it for the neighbours, and word spread. Of course though, there are rules and regulations, you can’t just go around slaughtering coypu. I now have an official licence to do this. All our coypu cages are registered and numbered. We can only lift and set traps at certain times of he day, and we get regular visits from the local game warden.
Are there any other pests apart from Coypu?
We get quite a few muskrats. (rat musqué) To the untrained eye, they look a lot like coypu, though they are smaller. The difference is in the tail. Muskrats have a flat tail, Coypus have a round tail. Muskrats also come out during the winter, they have a double layer of fur, and originally they come from North America, so they can stand the cold. Coypus are from South America, they don’t like the cold, and so during winter they tend to stay in their burrows. For a trapper, there is another important difference, when you shoot a muskrat; you have to remember that the creature’s blood does not coagulate. Killing them can be a very messy business.
How did Coypu make it from South America to the heart of the Berry?
Coypu were first brought across from South America to be bred for their fur. Underneath the Coypu’s coarse outer hairs, there is a nice velvety layer of fur known as nutria, very good for making coats. I suppose in time, Coypu either escaped or were released into the wild. They are very adaptable creatures and they breed fast. Now, they have reached pest proportions, and we are obliged to control their numbers.
Finally, any special coypu memories?
Yes, a couple of years ago, I caught my first white Coypu. Very rare.
A coypu or « ragondin » is an enormous semi-aquatic herbivorous rodent that could be mistaken for an enormous rat. Adult coypu are between 5 and 9 kilos in weight, measuring between 70 centimetres to just over a metre in length from head to tail. Coypu are easily recognisable by their two orange coloured « beaver-like » incisor teeth. Being semi-aquatic, Coypus have webbed back feet for swimming. Coypus are fast breeders; they produce two litters a year, roughly five or six babies a time. The female coypu has a four and a half month gestation period. The nipples of female coypu are high on her flanks. This allows their young to feed while the female is in the water. Though coypu fur is still used in the making of hats and slippers, readers are advised not to touch the beast; coypu are the host for a nasty little parasite that can infect the skin of humans causing a form of dermatitis known as “nutria itch”. Did you know that Coypu could get frostbite on their tails?
And what can you do with Coypu?
Originally bred for their fur, coypu, and muskrats were also a source of food in times gone by. Coypu meat is supposed to be lean and low in cholesterol. According to one website « in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, specifically Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,) Coypu are raised on private farms and sold in local markets as a poor man’s meat. ». In some very catholic areas of North America and Europe, the consumption of Coypu meat is authorised on Fridays. The Coypu is semi-aquatic and therefore, technically, is a fish. In France Coypu pâté is still made and sold. Here is the recipe if you want to try your hand at this very particular delicacy.
3 kilos of pork belly (poitrine de porc)
1 kilo of Coypu meat
25 grammes « épices Rabelais »*
A good pinch of nutmeg
1 glass of cognac
1 clove of garlic
Salt and pepper