Guest author: Heidi Krüger
The debate about the ongoing changes in Finnish legislation concerning the status of certain invasive species is reaching bizarre dimensions. People are mixing facts and fiction, becoming confused with terminology, and accusing the counter part of demonization.
Raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are very cute, and their puppies are even cuter. Like their non-related look-a-likes raccoons, many people see a potential pet in them, and find it difficult to understand why anybody would like to kill these furry cuties. Maybe it was ok before, when people needed hats like Davy Crockett’s, but nowadays that fur is out of fashion, can’t we just let them be?
Raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are invasive in Finland.
The EU says: Harmful invasive alien species must be outed
As a part of the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, regulation of invasive alien species entered into force in 2015. In 2017, the raccoon dog was included on the list of harmful invasive alien species, and now it is time for Finland to act on this matter. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has proposed that the status of the raccoon dog, along with that of some other alien mammals, should be changed from game species to unprotected species.
This change in status would mean that hunting is allowed year-round, using light (e.g. night vision oculars) and that no hunting license is required. Use of poison or instantly killing traps would not be allowed for raccoon dog hunting, even though the former is allowed for the eradication of rats and the latter for example on American minks (Neovison vison) (another species listed as an invasive alien species by the EU).
Many nature conservation and animal rights organizations are now loudly arguing against this change in legislation. One commonly heard quote is: “hunters are demonizing raccoon dogs even though studies have shown them to be quite harmless as predators”.
Not so harmless after all
Recent studies have shown that the raccoon dog can be very effective at searching for food and can be responsible for the depredation of ground-nesting bird nests on the mainland and in the archipelago much more severely than previously thought. This was shown with wildlife cameras that captured raccoon dog behavior at the nests.
Raccoon dogs predate the nests of ground-nesting birds.
Earlier studies relied on the fact that egg remains were seldom found in raccoon dog feces or on the clues left by predators at the depredated nest. Studies with cameras showed that raccoon dogs do not consume eggshells and nest predators cannot be identified by analyzing remains at the nests.
Some earlier studies have also tried to prove the harmlessness of raccoon dogs by predator removal experiments. Considering the capability of the raccoon dog in invading new areas, we have to wonder whether these studies were successful in removing the animals. It takes several years of extremely effective eradication before a decline in raccoon dog numbers is reached and an improvement is seen in the nesting success of birds, as shown in a study on a Finnish wetland.
Wildlife cameras were used to show that raccoon dogs are effective at locating eggs in the landscape.
Raccoon dogs spread a multitude of diseases
The raccoon dog is an invasive alien species that has invaded and still is invading our country. The game bag has doubled in the last twenty years, and 2016 was the first year it exceeded 200 000 individuals. There is no natural balance that would limit its population, at least not yet. If we let the population grow so big that it will balance itself, what is the cost? How many frogs and lizards must be eaten? It is not only ground-nesting birds that suffer from predation, most amphibians are doing really badly at the moment, and they don’t need an extra predator either.
The raccoon dog has other harmful properties besides predation. Its presence enabled a serious rabies outbreak in the 1980s in Finland, and we are still spreading vaccinated bates along the eastern border of the country to keep the disease out. And there are other diseases to consider. The raccoon dog is a host for scabies, trichinella, and canine distemper virus. Finland has so far not had any cases of Echinococcus multilocularis, which has already reached the Baltic countries. The raccoon dog will be a very effective vector for its spread and this will have tremendous side effects in a country where practically everyone collects berries from the forests and eats them unwashed.
So, the need to control this species really exists. It is not just the hunters who “hate” the species or who try to blame it for the extinction of birds instead of admitting that habitat loss is a real issue that has to be dealt with.
Let’s unite in a campaign for biodiversity
The current situation where raccoon dogs are protected during the summertime helps the population gain its previous strength year after year, as we now have seen in Finland. Yes, some raccoon dog pups may lose both parents and succumb to hunger, but as studies have shown, 90% of the pups will not survive their first winter anyways.
The worries of non-hunters engaging in raccoon dog hunting and employing inappropriate methods to kill these animals are most probably exaggerated. Anyone who has ever met a raccoon dog either in the wild or trapped in a cage, knows they are not as defenseless as often pictured. Euthanizing them requires skills and an effective gun. In Finland, owning a gun usually requires a hunting license. Besides, unprotected species are also covered by animal protection laws, so illegal or unethical methods are not allowed.
The change in legislation will help arrange an effective campaign over larger areas. It will make it easier for hunters to hunt this species. It will lessen the burden of the raccoon dog hunt that is currently placed on local hunters. It will motivate hunters when society finally accepts the removal of this species that does not belong in our nature.
And maybe, with the introduction of an intensive removal program, we can also motivate landowners to restore more habitats. This could help many species hovering on the brink of extinction, or even more, bring back those we lost many years ago. This would mean truly working to increase biodiversity, which is the large issue behind this ongoing debate.
References and reading:
Dahl, F & Åhlén, PA (2018) Nest predation by raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides in the archipelago of northern Sweden Biol Invasions 21: 743. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-018-1855-4
Kauhala, K, Kowalczyk, R (2011) Invasion of the raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides in Europe: history of colonization, features behind its success, and threats to native fauna. Current Zoology, 2011
Kauhala, K (2004) Removal of medium-sized predators and the breeding success of ducks in Finland. Folia Zoologica 53 (4), 367-378
Krüger, H, Väänänen, V-M, Holopainen, S, Nummi, P (2018) The new faces of nest predation in agricultural landscapes—a wildlife camera survey with artificial nests. Eur J Wildl Res (2018) 64: 76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10344-018-1233-7
Sutor, A, Kauhala, K, Ansorge, H (2010) Diet of the raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides—a canid with an opportunistic foraging strategy. Acta Theriologica
Väänänen V-M, Nummi P, Rautiainen A, Asanti T, Huolman I, Mikkola-Roos M, Nurmi J, Orava R, Rusanen P (2007) The effect of raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides removal on waterbird breeding success. Suomen Riista 53:49–63 in Finnish with English summary
Government proposal: https://www.eduskunta.fi/FI/vaski/HallituksenEsitys/Sivut/HE_286+2018.aspx
Raccoon Dog IUCN Red List: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/14925/85658776#conservation-actions
Proposal for management measures and pathways of invasive alien species (2019): Ehdotus haitallisten vieraslajien hallintasuunnitelmaksi ja leviämisväyliä koskevaksi toimintasuunnitelmaksi https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/161270/5-2019-EU-HAVI_2.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Game bag statistics: http://statdb.luke.fi/PXWeb/pxweb/fi/LUKE/LUKE__06%20Kala%20ja%20riista__02%20Rakenne%20ja%20tuotanto__16%20Metsastys/9_Mets_saalis_aikasarja.px/table/tableViewLayout1/?rxid=21289640-ded2-4672-8b4f-88454080c4d5