Raccoon dogs have been historically farmed for fur, but known as the escapologists of the mammal world, across the years they have freed themselves and spread rapidly through continental Europe.
According to the charity The Mammal Society, Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) are one of the major threats to biodiversity globally.
Raccoon dogs can transmit a number of diseases to humans, as well as posing a serious risk to native birds and amphibians.
Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Stephanie Wray, the chair of the Mammal Society, said: “There are a small number of sightings around Britain each year. Luckily, these have been sightings of single animals so far, but wild animal populations can grow remarkably quickly, and the raccoon dog is a very adaptable animal which can breed quickly and survive on a wide range of food.
“We need to be mindful of their potential impact on our native species and report any such sightings as soon as possible. You only have to look at the decimation of water vole numbers, which were already struggling with habitat loss before predation by invasive American mink, to see the damage which can be done over a relatively short period of time.”
The raccoon dog, most closely related to the fox, has also been kept as an exotic pet in Britain, though the RSPCA strongly discourages the public from doing so, and since 2019 further breeding or sale of the animal has been banned.
The Mammal Society is calling on people to report any sightings of the animals.
INNS can have a negative impact on the economy, as well as the environment; in a 2019 Environmental Audit committee report it said that in 2018 the City of London Corporation spent close to £100,000 tackling the oak processionary moth across its open spaces.
The same report states that DEFRA’s eradication of the Asian longhorn beetle in Kent in 2019 cost approximately £2 million.
Some INNS can also cause serious harm to human health, such as non-native deer spreading Lyme disease, or the oak processionary moth, whose caterpillars can cause skin irritation and breathing difficulties.
According to evidence submitted to the Environmental Audit committee in 2019 the INNS posing the greatest threat to human health are mosquitoes and ticks.
The same committee found that the UK had missed its legal targets on invasive species.
In the government’s response to the committee in 2020 it acknowledged that the impact and risk from INNS in the UK “remained significant” and that the number of INNS established in Britain had “remained constant in terrestrial environments and increased in freshwater and marine environments.”