‘We’re in shock’: Denmark’s mink farmers despair as livelihood dies with animals

Denmark's mink farmers are mourning what they say is the death of their industry after a government order to cull all of their stocks over a mutated variant of the new coronavirus.

'We're in shock': Denmark's mink farmers despair as livelihood dies with animals
Culled Danish mink are buried at Nørre Felding. Photo: Morten Stricker/Jysk Fynske Medier/Ritzau Scanpix

Warning: this report contains images some may find upsetting.

On Saturday, angry farmers and supporters plan to demonstrate against the cull in the country's two biggest cities, Copenhagen and Aarhus, with 400 tractors expected to roll in.

“We're in shock,” Marianne Nørgaard Sørensen tells AFP. “Words can't describe the nightmare we've been through.”

She and her husband, who has been a mink farmer since 1993, live in North Jutland, the region in northwestern Denmark home to the most mink farms.

Like millions of others across the country, their 27,000 minks were slaughtered in early November and around two thirds of the country's stocks have been culled to date.

“We wrote to the veterinary authorities to ask for two more days but then they came … and took over. It was very harsh, video of the slaughter went online,” she recalls.

“If we had only had two more days, we would have done it in a more humane way.”

Destroyed mink are buried near Karup. Diseased animals were covered with chemicals to eliminate infection risk. Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark's mink breeding began in the 1930s, when farmers sought to diversify their business as butter and meat prices tumbled.

Boosted by a favourable climate, the sector peaked in the 1960s, when there were some 6,000 farms compared to around 1,000 today.

With three times more minks than people, Denmark is now the world's biggest exporter of pelts, ringing up sales of 670 million euros annually, and the second-biggest producer behind China.

The animal is prized for its soft fur, used in the fashion industry for coats, collars and hats. Wearing fur remains especially popular in China, while attitudes have shifted in the West over the years.

But minks have posed a problem in the fight against the new coronavirus. The animals can catch the virus, and also pass it back to humans.

In early November, the Danish government sounded the alarm when it announced a nationwide cull of its 15 to 17 million minks, saying they could carry a mutated variant of the virus that could render any future vaccine for humans less effective.

The strain, dubbed 'Cluster 5', was detected in 12 people in August and September in North Jutland, and the government swiftly imposed strict restrictions on the region.

Since then, no new cases of the strain have been detected in humans or minks, the health ministry said Thursday, saying it has “most likely been eradicated”.


The cull has turned into a fiasco for the government.

It was forced to admit last week that it had no legal power to order the killing of healthy minks outside the contaminated zones, leading to the resignation on Wednesday of the agriculture minister and dealing a blow to public confidence in the government.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has nonetheless insisted the cull is “non-negotiable”, and her government is now preparing legislation to make it possible — by banning mink farming until January 1st, 2022.

Meanwhile, in another part of Jutland, Erik Vammen has held off killing his animals so far, even though that means he forgoes the extra compensation paid to those who cull rapidly.

“At night when I see the lights of a car I'm afraid it's the police,” admits this 60-something who inherited his mink farm from his father and grandfather before him.

Since neither his nor the neighbouring farms have had any cases of coronavirus, his minks are not a priority. But he knows that “if I don't kill the minks they'll come and kill them.”

Culled minks at a fur farm in Næstved on November 6th. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

He says the state's financial compensation is not enough to make up for his lost livelihood.

And, he argues, how can you have confidence in authorities who impose measures without any legal basis? 

Few believe the industry will ever recover, even if mink farms are authorised to open again in 2022.

Most agree it would take more than 10 years to cultivate minks with top quality pelts.

“There's no hope for the future,” laments Nørgaard Sørensen. 

The world's largest fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, said it is planning a “controlled shutdown” for the next two or three years.

There are, however, those happy to see the industry disappear: animal welfare associations, who have long criticised the fur farms as cruel.

They argue the furry creatures suffer from overcrowding in small cages.

“Danish fur breeders have put millions of euros into marketing and creating demand for fur by telling fairy tales about how the animals are treated. Once we don't produce fur in Europe this misleading marketing will disappear,” says Joh Vinding, head of the animal rights association Anima.

“I don't think we'll see mink farming in Denmark ever again.”

By Camille Bas-Wohlert

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IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?

The number of new Covid-19 infections fell on Saturday for the second day in a row, following a three-day plateau at the start of last week. Has the omicron wave peaked?

IN NUMBERS: Has the Omicron Covid-19 wave peaked in Denmark?
Graffiti in the Copenhagen hippy enclave of Christiania complaining of Omicron's impact on Christmas. Photo: Philip Davali/Scanpix

How many cases, hospitalisations and deaths are there in Denmark? 

Denmark registered 12,588 new cases in the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, down from the 18,261 registered on in the day leading up to Friday at 2pm, which was itself a decline from the record 28,283 cases recorded on Wednesday. 

The cases were identified by a total of 174,517 PCR tests, bringing the positive percentage to 7.21 percent, down from the sky high rates of close to 12 percent seen in the first few days of January. 

The number of cases over the past seven days is lower than the week before in almost every municipality in Denmark, with only Vallensbæk, Aarhus, Holseterbro, Skanderborg, Hjørring, Vordingborg,  Ringkøbing, Kolding, Assens, Horsens, Thisted, and Langeland reporting rises. 

Hospitalisations have also started to fall, with some 730 patients being treated for Covid-10 on Saturday, down from 755 on Friday. On Tuesday, 794 were being treated for Covid-19 in Danish hospitals, the highest number since the peak of the 2020-21 winter wave.

The only marker which has not yet started to fall is the number of deaths, which tends to trail infections and hospitalisations. 

In the 24 hours leading up to 2pm on Saturday, Denmark registered 28 deaths with Covid-19, the highest daily number recorded since 20 January 2021, when 29 people died with Covid-19 (although Denmark’s deadliest day was the 19 January 2021, when 39 people died). 

How does Denmark compare to other countries in Europe? 

Over the last seven days, Denmark has had the highest Covid-19 case rate of any country in Europe bar Ireland. The number of new infections in the country has climbed steadily since the start of December, apart from a brief fall over Christmas. 

So does this mean the omicron wave has peaked? 

Maybe, although experts are not sure. 

“Of course, you can hope for that, but I’m not sure that is the case,” said Christian Wejse, head of the Department for Infectious Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital. “I think it is too early to conclude that the epidemic has peaked.”

He said that patients with the Omicron variant were being discharged more rapidly on average than had been the case with those who had the more dangerous Delta variant. 

“Many admissions are relatively short-lived, thankfully. This is because many do not become that il, and are largely hospitalized because they are suffering with something else. And if they are stable and do not need oxygen, then they are quickly discharged again.” 

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said during a visit to an event held by the Social Liberal party that the latest numbers made her even more optimistic about the coming month. 

“We have lower infection numbers and the number of hospitalisations is also plateauing,” she said. “I think we’re going to get through this winter pretty well, even if it will be a difficult time for a lot of people, and we are beginning to see the spring ahead of us, so I’m actually very optimistic.” 

She said that she had been encouraged by the fact that Omicron was a “visibly less dangerous variant if it is not allowed to explode.”