The ‘Coypu’ (or ‘Swamp Beaver’ as it is elsewhere known) is a rodent, related to the porcupine, whose original home is in South America. It is an aquatic animal, making burrows in the banks of streams and feeding on plants in or near to the water.
It has a beautiful long soft coat, known to the fur trade as Nutria. Because of this, the coypu has been farmed in many parts of the world including Britain, where in particular, it had escaped and established itself successfully in the countryside of Norfolk and North Suffolk to become a major pest by damaging riverbanks and crops. It was eventually eradicated in 1987 after a sustained campaign over many years. Rumours remain of a coypu community still at Herringfleet in Norfolk though this has not been verified.
The coypu distinctly resembles an otter and the word ‘Nutria’ is Spanish for otter. An adult coypu may weigh up to 9kg and grow to 600mm long, it is a powerful swimmer with webbed rear feet. It can hold and manipulate things using it’s long-clawed front feet. It’s tail is long and scaly, but not in anyway flattened.
Young coypus are born in mid-winter, the species has never been able to adjust itself to the northern seasons. In the UK many died or suffered from frostbite and but for this their numbers would have greatly increased. They are born in a more advanced condition than many other rodents, and are carried on their mother’s back for a few days. During this time they are able to suckle, for the mother’s teats are placed high on her side and can be reached easily by the babies, enabling them to feed whilst she is swimming. It is said that they can eat solid food at the age of two days, though they remain dependant on their mothers for much longer than this.
Coypus have similarly established themselves in regions of Europe and continue to represent a problem in certain areas of France and Spain.
In Germany Coypu meat has been sold in butchers as a healthy alternative to conventional meat choices as it is naturally low in cholesterol. In areas of Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan Coypu is farmed and sold in the local markets as a low cost meat.
To some people in the UK, like the writer and broadcaster Roger Deakin, the Coypu became a symbol of defiance and rebellion as a result of its spirited resistance to persecution.