Mink and fox are farmed in Canada and the United States, the former Soviet Union, the Scandinavian countries and throughout Europe - and increasingly, in Mainland China.
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Starting in the late 1880s a new industry developed in Canada, as animals of various species began to be bred in captivity for their fur.
Fox farming started on Prince Edward Island during the 1890's. Sir Charles Dalton and Robert Oulton, two fur industry pioneers, began the domestication of fox when they started the world’s first fox farm using fox pups obtained from the wild.
The first mink farming attempts in Canada took place during 1866-87 by Patterson Bros in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Other species of furbearers that were farmed at that time included raccoon, marten, and lynx.
Up to the 1910s, fur farming was predominantly in the Maritime Provinces, but the industry rapidly developed in Ontario and Quebec and a few isolated fur farms could also be found in the Western provinces.
Today, there are fur farms in nearly all provinces but are mostly located in Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Québec.
The two main furbearing animal species currently raised on farms are the mink (Neovison vison, also known as Mustela vison) and the silver fox (Vulpes vulpes). Limited amounts of chinchilla (Chinchilla laniger) are also produced.
The fox and mink farming industries contribute about $115 million to the Canadian economy annually (2007). From 2004 to 2007 approximately 63 % of Canadian furs come from farming operations. In Canada during the same period about 1.6 million pelts/year were produced by fur farms.*
Fur farming also helps to maintain rural communities, at a time when modern, highly efficient food production technologies are reducing farming populations in many regions.
Mink and foxes have been raised on farms in North America for well over a century. They have been selectively bred for more than eighty generations for such characteristics as size, fur quality and color, but also for disease resistance, ease-of-handling and other desirable production traits. This is the same way our important breeds of cattle, poultry and other domestic livestock were developed.
Fur farming is labour intensive and requires both hard work and dedication. Animals must be cared for, fed and watered every day. Animal health and fur quality are priorities and require keeping extensive healthcare and breeding records. The animals also need specialized housing, a balanced diet, clean surroundings and proper care and handling.
Scientific research on nutrition and animal diseases along with modern veterinary care, have significantly improved the health and quality of farmed furbearers over the years. The main components of feed are wastes and by-products from the commercial meat, poultry, egg and fishing industries - meat and other by products which would not be used for human consumption. The diet may be supplemented with industrial fish (as fishmeal), vegetable protein and cereals plus certain minerals and vitamins.
The fur trade also supports advanced "ethological" research, to determine how housing designs and other factors influence the well-being of farmed mink and foxes. Fur farm research projects have been and continue to be undertaken at universities and research centers in Canada, Denmark, Finland and Norway, and in the U.S.
Fur farmers, as with all farmers, have environmental best management practices to follow and must adhere to environmental laws and regulations. Requirements vary from province to province, but all address manure management and waste disposal, air and water quality, biodiversity protection and other land stewardship measures.
Canadian fur farmers also operate under provincial and territorial legislation and Codes of Practice covering animal welfare. The Recommended Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals include mink and ranched fox, and were developed by Agriculture Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.
Fox farming started on Prince Edward Island (PEI) in 1895, when Sir Charles Dalton and Robert Oulton, the two fur industry pioneers, begun raising fox pups they obtained from the wild. The fox industry quickly grew to be PEI’s most profitable sector of agriculture at the time. In 1913, there were 277 fox farms and by 1923, there were 448.
Fox pelts were very fashionable among women in the 1920s when the price of a scarf made of a single pelt ranged from $350 to $1,000. Significant revenue was also obtained from breeding stock sales in the early days of the industry. For example, an adult breeding pair would cost $18,000 to $35,000.
The silver fox is a member of the dog family (Canidae) and is omnivorous (eats animals and plants). Most farmed foxes in Canada are fed with commercially manufactured, dry pelleted feed similar to pet food. Some farmers still feed a farm-made meat-based diet made up of fish and meat packing house by-products and other “food wastes”, supplemented with a grain cereal, vitamins and minerals.
Foxes are inquisitive by nature but may bite when defensive. For this reason, foxes are handled with thick leather mitts or neck tong restrainers.
Adult breeding foxes are housed individually in wire mesh pens and they are provided a well-bedded nest box for the reproduction season. The female fox, or vixen has her first litter at about one year of age.
Foxes are bred once a year and the breeding season of the silver fox is from January to March. Pregnancy lasts for 54 days and a litter of 1 to 9 pups (average of 3/litter) is born during March-May. The vixen nurses her pups for about 6 weeks and the litters are weaned in May and June.
Weaned pups are first reared together and the litters are later separated into pairs. Winter fur development begins in August and the fur is prime for pelting in November and December. The natural color types of the fox species vary from: silver, standard pearl, platinum, standard platinum, as well as many other colours and combinations.
Mink is a medium sized member of the weasel family (Mustelidae) and was first raised in captivity during the Civil War in Lake Casadacka, New York. The first mink farming attempts in Canada took place during 1866-87 by Patterson Bros in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Today, mink are farmed in most provinces.
Mink are naturally aggressive animals and must be handled carefully. They bite readily and adults must be handled with thick leather mitts.
Adult mink are housed in individual wire mesh pens and it is a common farming practice to house up to 3 kits together for the first month following weaning. The mink are provided with a nest box for the breeding season.
Mink barns (or sheds) are not heated or insulated. The animals are reared under natural daylight and temperature conditions and are protected from direct sunlight and wind.
The mink is a carnivore so it requires a meat-based diet. The most common ingredients are fish filleting waste, by-products of poultry processing and slaughterhouse offal which make up 70-80% of the diet. The balance of the diet includes cereal, vitamins and minerals. In the main mink farming areas, such as Nova Scotia and Ontario, feed is prepared in central feed kitchens or on farm.
Breeding of mink takes place once a year during late February- early March. In the mink, ovulation is induced by mating and the length of pregnancy varies between 39-75 days (average of 51 days) due to a natural delay in the implantation of the fertilized eggs. The female gives birth to a litter of 1-12 kits (average of 5 or 6) during late April and early May and nurses for about 6 weeks.
The kits are weaned in June. Mink are vaccinated at about 10 weeks of age for distemper, virus enteritis, botulism and pseudomonas pneumonia. Winter fur development begins in August and the fur is fully developed (prime) in November or December when it is harvested. Mink pelts come in many natural colours, such as black (dark), mahogany, pastel, demi buff, sapphire and white.
At harvest time foxes and mink are euthanized on the farm using approved methods – electric current for foxes and carbon monoxide gas for mink– to provide a quick and humane death.
The skin is removed (pelting) and the fat layer is scraped off (fleshing). The skin is further cleaned by drumming in sawdust and then stretched onto a board for drying. Pelting and pelt processing is commonly done today in custom pelting facilities.
The dried raw skins (pelts) are shipped to an auction house where they are sorted and graded for size, quality and colour. Pelts with similar characteristics are bundled together into “lots” and are sold at auctions attended by hundreds of international buyers who bid on the pelts.
Pelt prices change from year to year. Pelt price is determined based on size, quality, colour and on the supply and demand of furs which varies from year to year. Foxes, being a longer haired fur, are more subject to market fluctuations than mink due to changes in fashion trends.
Fur farmers, as with all farmers, have environmental best management practices to follow and must adhere to environmental laws and regulations.
If a farm is found to be out of compliance with environmental regulations the farmer must remedy the situation and is also liable for fines and penalties.
Requirements vary from province to province, but all farms including fur farms must meet the rules governing manure management and waste disposal, air and water quality, and other environmental farm practices.
In some provinces, fur farms must apply for an environmental permit to build or expand operations. This ensures that these farms meet the environmental requirements laid down by municipalities and or the province.
Farmers also self-regulate their own environmental activities by completing farm assessments and developing Environmental Farm Plans. Attending ‘how to’ workshops as well as studying and applying best management practices is proving effective in making farms even more environmentally friendly. Although voluntary, there are financial incentives through environmental project grants that have made these programs highly successful since their introduction in the 1990’s.
Fur farming has environmental benefits, such as providing a sustainable use for tens of thousands of tonnes of animal by-products from human food production. Fur farmed animals are fed waste food purchased from fish and poultry processors and other farming sectors. Feeding these by-products, which are not intended for human use, creates a market to help keep down the actual cost of human food production and reduces the waste stream going into landfills.
Since fur farming does not require a substantial land base, fur farms can be located in areas unsuitable for other forms of farming: this makes productive use of marginal lands.
Raising fur animals is also well-suited to mixed farming since it demands the most from a farmer during the winter months when field crops require less attention.
Straw from crops, or wood chips from lumbering, is used for bedding and to insulate cages. Manure is returned to the land to help grow new crops.
Nothing is wasted.
Fur is used to produce a range of natural products, from clothing to fine brushes.
Oils and fats are used to produce consumer products such as hypo-allergic cosmetics and fine leather preservatives.
As with all farms, fur farms generate organic wastes that are composted and recycled as fertilizer which is used both commercially and on the farm.
Fur farmers are also beginning to explore the use of farm wastes as a source of bio-energy to power their own farms and beyond.
As a renewable resource and recycler, farmed fur is a sustainable method of production.
Just like their wild counterparts, farmed fur species are susceptible to diseases. Disease outbreaks, if they become serious enough, can end a farming business due to the loss of animals and lost sales income. Outbreaks can also jeopardize other farms in the area or even the entire country.
Farmers, including fur farmers, do a variety of things to reduce the risk of diseases.
Strategies used to reduce the chance of diseases on fur farms include proper nutrition, vaccinations (where they exist) and good hygiene practices as well as appropriate veterinary care and treatment.
In some provinces, such as Alberta, it is becoming mandatory to have “bio-security” protocols in place on all farms. By restricting visitor access and following mandatory hygiene practices for the visitors, animals, feed and equipment that enter the property, the farm is made “bio-secure” so that animals are protected from the introduction of pests and diseases.
At the national level farmed animals fall under the Health of Animals Act. This regulated Act sets disease control requirements for farm animals entering and residing in Canada, including mink and fox.
Farmed mink and foxes are also covered under the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) rules and protocols.
Codes of Practice or Best Management Practices for farmed mink and foxes exist in major producing countries.
In Canada, fur farms operate under provincial and territorial legislation and Codes of Practice covering animal welfare. As with all domestic animals, farmed fur animals are protected from cruelty and neglect under both national and provincial/territory law.
The Recommended Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals in Canada, for both mink and ranched fox**, were developed by Agriculture Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.
These Codes set out industry guidelines for nutrition and housing, veterinary care and humane harvesting methods. Canada’s national codes have been developed collectively by Canadian fur farmers, animal scientists, government regulators and humane societies.
The Standard Guidelines for the Operation of Chinchilla Ranches** was developed by the National Chinchilla Breeders of Canada and represent recognized international best management practices.
Canadian farmed fur meets the standards of the Quality Assured™ retail label.
* Statistics Canada collects annual data on the fur industry.
** Codes and Guidelines are accessible on-line.