Immigrant Rascals Raccoons Invade Germany

The raccoon population in Germany is booming -- much to the displeasure of hunters and wine makers.

It's an invasion that has many in Germany up in arms. Literally. The raccoon population is exploding in the country -- as witnessed by the rapidly increasing numbers of them being shot by German hunters -- and nature lovers are not happy. Worse, the furry interlopers have no natural predators here and are therefore free to breed at their leisure.

They are not making themselves popular. Wine-makers in the region of Annenwalde in the state of Brandenburg have taken to protecting their vines from raccoons with electric fences and guard dogs, while cherry farmers in Witzenhausen in Hesse state complain that the 'coons steal their fruit.

And other species are losing out too. "The raccoon has become the scourge of the bird world," says Bernd Möller from the Brandenburg hunters' association. "They get their little paws on everything and they love to steal the eggs of ducks on nature reserves."

Möller says the raccoon spreads parasites and illnesses and other animals don't know how to defend themselves against the sneaky foreign thief. "That's why we have to make sure that we keep the population down," he says.

Ursula Stöter, who runs a hobby zoo in Krangen in Brandenburg where she raises raccoons she has rescued from the wild, disagrees. "When there are problems with bird broods, there are always several reasons," she says, adding that humans are always the biggest problem.

Raccoons were originally introduced to Germany from the United States as a supposedly clever idea. "Their furs were in demand and expensive," explains Frank-Uwe Michler, a raccoon specialist in Müritz national park in the north-eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. "Then people had the idea to breed the animals here."

The first breeding pair were let out in the state of Hesse in the 1930s. Other raccoons managed to escape from a fur farm near Berlin. Now the two regions are the hotbeds of the German raccoon population.

Although exact figures of raccoon populations in Germany are not available, the numbers of raccoons shot give a rough indication of demographic trends. In the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, hunters killed 41 raccoons in 1990. In the last hunting season, it was 5,712. A total of 30,000 were killed across Germany in the last year, more than three times the number killed six years ago.

Like many animals considered pests, raccoons share several characteristics with humans. They are clever, adaptable omnivores, equipped with thumbs which allow them to, among other things, wash their food -- a habit which earned them their name in German, Waschbären ("wash bears").

Meanwhile the wily raccoons have realised they will probably prosper better in urban areas, far from hunters' guns. "There are now significantly more raccoons living in cities than in the countryside," says Michler.


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