John Papsø is devastated. You can hear it in his voice over the phone from Jutland. Like every other fur farmer in Denmark, he has 10 days to kill his mink.

“It’s horrible. I’m not even sure it’s dawned on me how grave the consequences will be for us. We are shellshocked. I was up at 4am because I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been pacing up and down the floor, and I’ve cried. It’s a state of shock,” said Papsø, who has more 30,000 mink on his farm.

On Wednesday the Danish government announced a cull of every mink in the country over fears that a Covid-19 mutation moving from mink to humans could jeopardise future vaccines. A new strain, currently known as the Covid-19 mink variant, is already circulating among the Danish human population, and 214 people are known to have been infected.

“If we don’t [cull them] the government will send police or even military, we’ve been told,” Papsø told the Guardian.

For Papsø and his wife, the cull will be the end of 30 years’ work. “Our business is destroyed now. It was bad already as 90% is from China. A lot of them travel here to buy the fur. They couldn’t do that when Covid hit. And now this,” he said.

Given the scale of Denmark’s nationwide cull, which includes breeding stock, it could be a while before fur producers think beyond it. Although so far no official ban has been imposed, on Wednesday a statement from the Danish police said: “No minks will be allowed in the cages in 2021.”

Papsø said the restrictions are likely to shut down the sector. “I’d say it’s 99% certain the industry will not come back from this,” he said, despite the fact that Denmark’s mink quality can earn farmers a 40% premium compared with other countries.

A spokesperson for industry lobby Fur Europe suggested that some mink farmers might now go overseas. “If they are thinking about the future at all right now, Danish farmers might be thinking about leaving,” Nick Madsen said. “In the past, fur farmers from Denmark have relocated to North America or eastern Europe. There are questions over Poland [due to a potential fur farm ban], but Bulgaria might be attractive.”

Describing the cull process, Papsø said the mink are “moved from their nest into a small box. In that box there is CO2-gas. That sedates them, and they fall asleep are gone in 10-15 seconds. It’s as humane as you can do it, there is no transport as with other livestock and no stress from that.”

But animal welfare organisations disagree. Wendy Higgins of the Humane Society International (HSI) said gassing is “particularly cruel because mink are semi-aquatic animals able to hold their breath for long periods”, which means that some could survive the first attempt.

“In the Netherlands there was video of mink culls that appears to show some mink surviving initial gassing and having to be gassed a second time,” Higgins said.

The order to cull mink has fuelled debate about the future of fur. Birgitte Damm, policy adviser and vet with NGO Animal Protection Denmark, said the Danish cull was the end for fur. “The corona pandemic showed us that the time when thousands upon thousands of animals could be crammed into tiny spaces is over. The animals are suffering and the farms are breeding grounds for new diseases. The future holds no minks in tiny cages, not in Denmark, not anywhere.”

Globally, Higgins said data from the world’s largest auctioneers, Kopenhagen Fur, showed a long-term decline in mink prices, from €59 (£53) per pelt in December 2013, to €19 in September 2020. “There’s no question, the fur trade has been in decline for a while, but the past year has seen a perfect storm of events,” she said.

“Top designers have been dropping fur in droves because it’s jarringly outdated as well as cruel. Consumers increasingly want high animal welfare, environmentally-friendly products, which fur is not.”

Recent undercover investigations in Asia and Europe showing foxes skinned alive, mink eating each other, and paralysed mink with rotting back legs, have also lowered demand.

Madsen and the Finnish CEO of Saga Fur auctioneers, Magnus Ljung, both see it differently. They point to a jump in Chinese demand following news of the Danish cull and expect further price rises.

Some Danish pelts from Covid-19 free farms will make it to market, Madsen added. “The farm has to be outside the (7.5km) security zone around infected farms,” he said. “We estimate 4 million to 5 million [pelts] will be destroyed around 7 million will reach the auction house next month.”

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