Prairie dogs moved to new enclosure

Prairie dog. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Prairie dog. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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A NON-NATIVE species of burrowing rodents have been rounded up and corralled at a Scottish farm attraction to prevent them moving into a neighbouring site of special scientific interest.

Prairie dogs, which are native to the North America grasslands, have been a popular visitor attraction at East Links Family Park near 
Dunbar in East Lothian, since 2013.

But amid growing fears that the animals might escape into the neighbouring John Muir Country Park, part of the Forth site of special scientific interest, a protected natural area, Scottish Natural Heritage reached a voluntary agreement with the owner of the park to create a secure enclosure.

The voluntary agreement is the first of its kind to control invasive non-native species in Scotland.

Stan Whitaker, SNH’s invasive non-native species expert, said: “Prairie dogs in their native range in North America do cause problems competing for grazing with cattle, and they can also act as a reservoir for wildlife disease.

“Our concern was that, if prairie dogs became established, they would have a negative impact on natural areas and farmland.”

“We believe this is a much more effective way to work with wildlife parks and others, rather than levying fines.

“We hope this will encourage people to be more open when animals or birds escape, and result in better control of invasive species by working together.”

Grant Bell, of East Links Farm Park, said: “Prairie dogs are humorous wee guys loved by our visitors for their antics but they don’t voluntarily offer themselves up to capture or enclosure.

“The challenge here was to create an environment whereby the animals would have a secure enclosure that allowed them plenty of freedom and still let our visitors enjoy them. The collaboration with SNH allowed us to create an enclosure that suited our needs but also exceeded their expectations and criteria.”

Prairie dogs are part of the squirrel family.

They live in extensive underground warrens of tunnels and chambers, marked by mounds of packed earth at the entrances on the surface.

Cattle farmers in North America have blamed the species’ tunnelling and digging for causing considerable damage to pastures.

Zoos, parks and private collections are legally obliged to keep their animals and birds in secure enclosures.

If they allow them to wander, they are breaking the law.

If any animals or birds escape from enclosures, they should try to re-capture them and notify the relevant authorities.