The news articles on the invasive species Nutria are hair-raising in areas where the ‘feral’ population is unchecked. The Nutria is native to sub-tropical South America. There are several names given to this huge rat, one is Small Beaver, given its shape and size. Picture a beaver, now remove its tail and screw in a big rat tail. In parts of the world this marsh rat is known as Coypu. Early explorers exported Nutria to their ‘home’ countries for fur production. Given their voracious appetite, 25 percent of body weight per day, they were not practical for fur farms and let go. The animal is mostly a vegetarian, feeding on plants above ground, then digging out the roots and eating native rhizome. Given that the female Nutria can produce one to a dozen babies up to three times a year, it becomes obvious that populations can expand quickly. Besides the potential for destruction of native plants the Nutria is a burrowing animal. Think about the delta region of central California, levies and water control earthen dams are an important part of that system. The Nutria borrows in such numbers that the once stable earthen structure can collapse. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has been at the forefront of attempts to control the Nutria here in California. To visit the current efforts: wildlife.ca.gov/nutria To learn more about the animal search Nutria in Wikipedia
A feral animal or plant (from Latin fera, “a wild beast”) is one that lives independent in the wild but has descended from domesticated strains. This differs from an introduced species. As an example, there are no wild turkeys native to California, all have been introduced, by hunters, to develop a new game species. And it worked. The domestic pig came to be, not native to our state, by farming practices of the past. Farmers would let their pigs run unchecked to live outside the farm without custodial care. Typically, the farmers would occasionally feed the pigs then trap the group, harvest what they wanted to butcher and let the others go. Pigs are an adaptable species. Today they are present in most of California, they are voracious and prolific. Where the wild populations are unchecked, they root up everything in their endless quest for food. Native species are often negativity impacted and even the thin top soil can be irreparably damaged by feral pigs rooting for roots, bugs and worms. An interesting sidebar to this feral population is the ‘introduced” strains of truly wild boars of Russia and Europe. Hunters felt that the new genetic strains would lead to a ‘wilder’ population, it did. Today wild boar are sometimes huge, hairy beasts that barely resemble a domestic pig and can have a vile temperament.
Think also of Irish Broom, an invasive plant that blooms with a yellow flower, common near roadsides. This aggressive plant has taken over some wild plant populations and today grows unchecked. Another ‘introduced’ species comes directly from one of our local botanical heroes, Luther Burbank. He worked with a number of ‘berry’ vines in hopes of developing one that would provide bigger berries, be easier to grow and be acceptable to consumers. One of the berries he brought in and then rejected grows all over the state, the blackberry. Growing in your back yard and along seeming every roadside, it is not native to California. This annoying vine was rejected for its unpleasant thorns, large numbers of seeds and wild growth. What happened is that the berry is eaten by our bird population, they love the berries, and as nature intended, the seeds pass through the digestive track unharmed and then deposited by the bird to grow a new vine. Like Johnny Appleseed or Birdie Berryseed.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.