There are few invasive exotics that we know as precisely where and when they gained a foothold as the muskrat. This large American cousin of the vole family – officially not a rat at all – spread rapidly throughout Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, where it devoured peat bogs and caused dike breaches to its heart’s content. Today it occurs on the Eurasian continent from France to Japan. In record year 2004, 400,000 muskrats were killed in the Netherlands.
The trouble started in 1905, when the Bohemian aristocrat Josef Colloredo-Mannsfeld brought back three females and two males from a hunting trip to Alaska and released them on his estate not far from Prague. He was all about the beautiful, thick waterproof fur. Four years later, the wild population was already so evenly distributed across Europe that its progress could be predicted with mathematical models, writes the British nature writer Dan Eatherly in Invasive Aliens. Muskrats were also released in other places in Europe (in the Soviet Union alone, 80,000 individuals were released between 1928 and 1945). Breeding farms were also set up, where occasionally a number of specimens escaped. It all contributed to the rapid growth of the wild population in Europe.
According to the Field Guide Exotics a female muskrat can have a litter three to four times a year, giving birth to four to seven young, which reach sexual maturity after five to seven months. That means that in the most extreme case, one specimen can provide 567 new muskrats within one year. In addition, the muskrat has a particularly good adaptability – in North America, where the muskrat originally comes from, it is found from Alaska to Mexico.
An adult specimen can eat one and a half square meters of reeds in one day. A population of more than twenty specimens on one hectare can have an irreversible effect on biodiversity within a few years: reed areas disappear, the vegetation composition changes radically, young fish lose shelter, which in turn affects the composition of invertebrate life, and so on. In addition, muskrats also eat insects and shellfish, including, for example, the endangered freshwater pearl mussel.
In addition to the ecological damage, they also cause economic damage. Muskrats dig burrows in riverbanks, causing damage to flood defences, sewers and water treatment plants. Their burrows and corridors can cause subsidence in grasslands, causing agricultural vehicles to get stuck or cattle to break their legs. And by undermining riverbanks and dikes, they can cause flooding.
Muskrats dig burrows in riverbanks, causing damage to flood defences
The latter in particular is of course an acute problem in the low-lying Netherlands. The first muskrat was caught here in 1941 in Valkenswaard. Not long after that, the Netherlands started combating it. In the last twenty years it is finally starting to have an effect. In 2021, only 44,995 muskrats will have been caught (compared to 400,000 in peak year 2004), according to the Musk and coypu annual report 2021 of the Union of Water Boards (UvW), which is responsible for combating it. “There are still two problem areas: Zeeland and the Groene Hart,” says Dolf Moerkens, UvW policy advisor specializing in the muskrat problem. “Especially the latter peat area is an absolute Valhalla for the muskrat.”
The muskrat is also called water rabbit in Belgium. There, the creature under that name is considered a true delicacy. These water rabbits are therefore numerous, are actively fought and they are appreciated gastronomically. So why do we see them so little on restaurant menus? That we the Ondatra zibethicus labeling it as a ‘rat’ is of course not good PR (although the Belgians have devised a solution for this). But whatever you call it, more importantly, it is not at all clear to hunters and restorers whether it is legal to offer muskrat for consumption.
The Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority has nothing against it in principle, but prefers not to flaunt it. Because a financial incentive can also have the opposite effect: for example, people could illegally start breeding them again for commercial reasons. The NVWA will therefore not actively promote the gastronomic value of the muskrat. But the law and food safety are no reason to ban it.
Since 2015, the EU has emphatically banned all commercial activities – keeping, importing, breeding and trading – of all species on the Union List of Invasive Exotic Species. But this only applies to living specimens. Trading in carcasses or parts thereof does not fall under this, explains Gabriel Mainer of the Expertise Division of the NVWA: “Furthermore, the muskrat is a rodent and falls under the veterinary law in the category of small game, just like hares and rabbits. . So with regard to hunting the muskrat, the same rules apply as for the other small game.”
Those critters have often been rotting for days. Such meat is of course no longer suitable for consumption
Muskrats are largely, but not strictly, vegetarian. This entails a (low) risk of parasites and zoonoses. But so are some other game species. “Food is by definition never 100 percent safe,” says Mainer of the NVWA. “But we have rules for consuming game, and we therefore consider it sufficiently safe. But if you emphatically look up the risks, you run a greater chance of things going wrong. I wouldn’t eat muskrat carpaccio every day.”
Nevertheless, the Association of Water Boards, which carries out the control, writes on its website that it is forbidden to eat muskrat, because the meat does not meet the standards that apply to consumer meat. This has to do with the fishing method, explains Dolf Moerkens. Some of the muskrats are caught ‘passively’: with cages in and around the water. “A little fighter has about a thousand to two thousand kilometers of waterways under his care, which checks once every one or two weeks that fall.” Then those critters have often been rotting for days. Such meat is of course no longer suitable for consumption.
Most muskrats are ‘actively’ caught. The search is on for buildings around which clamps will be placed under water. “They are usually checked and emptied the next day, because you want to catch that whole nest,” says Moerkens. But even those animals cannot be offered for consumption. “Because then all rat catchers would also have to be qualified to inspect the meat and have a refrigerated truck.” The muskrats caught by the water boards’ fighters are therefore not suitable for consumption for practical reasons.
In principle, a hunter is free to eat all the game he or she legally shoots himself
In principle, a hunter is free to eat all the game he or she legally shoots himself. In order to bring it into the food chain – which includes selling to a poulterer or restaurant, but also giving it away to neighbors – the meat must be inspected and it must be traceable. The game must then be inspected by a GP, or ‘qualified person’ – a hunter with extra training – who also keeps the necessary records. The same goes for the muskrat.
However, a hunter may only use his rifle for hunting (ie to hunt the freely huntable species within the hunting season, namely: hare, rabbit, pigeon, mallard and pheasant), or for damage control or population management. In the latter cases, the province must have given a specific order for this, says hunters association KNJV. And therein lies the crux: for muskrat control, that task lies primarily with the water boards. Only a few provinces, such as North Brabant and Zeeland, have also granted an exemption for the use of a rifle.
Bottom line: it is not easy to get hold of, but in theory you can eat a muskrat that has been shot in Brabant or Zeeland and inspected by a GP without too much risk, if prepared with common sense. That leaves the key question: is it tasty?
Chef-owner Arjan Smit prepared them for years in his regional restaurant De Pronckheer in Cothen, before closing the doors for good in 2018 after 25 years. “They have never really been on the menu, but I always had about fifteen in the freezer. It was mainly many Belgians who drove all the way to Cothen for it.” They knew they had to be there because Smit has never shied away from publicity. “I have always found it ridiculous that animals that are perfectly edible are destroyed. That is why I also served coot, for example.”
Smit stewed the muskrats with a little red wine, game stock and gingerbread. The latter not only provides the sweet touch that goes well with the deep game flavor, but also ensures that the sauce binds quickly. Because there is relatively little meat in such an animal and certainly no fat. So the trick is not to stew them for too long. Forty minutes is enough. “You also want a thick sauce that sticks to the meat.”
The taste of muskrat can be compared to that of hare
The taste of muskrat can be compared to that of hare: it is dark meat, with a deep game flavour. But it has an extra layer. It’s not called muskrat for nothing. The word ‘musk’ originally comes from the Sanskrit for ‘testicle’. It refers to glands with which the Siberian musk deer produces a strong odorant to set off scent flags. This highly aromatic substance has been a sought-after and rare ingredient in the perfume industry for thousands of years. The muskrat produces a similar, if less exquisite, substance: bisam – it is also called bisamrat.
It gives the meat a sweet, floral-aromatic overtone, a bit like a dried field bouquet, which is best when the meat (for example the small back fillets) is roasted medium rare. With a very clear one underneath musky animal smell – a bit of goat farm in the good sense of the word. Due to its aromatic sweet character, the water rabbit can be combined extremely well with red summer fruit. I stewed it in sour Rodenbach beer, thickened the sauce with gingerbread with a little ginger and served it with ripe cherries. I can recommend that to everyone.