Town's historic ducks facing extinction after being declared a health risk
A town's historic duck population is facing extinction after officials declared them a risk to public health.
The prized Muscovy ducks have been a popular sight in Buckfastleigh, Devon, for years but their numbers have dwindled recently because of disease.
Locals asked for protected status for the several dozen that live in the market town's Orchard Millennium Green, close to the famous Benedictine monastery at Buckfast.
But Natural England has declared the birds a risk to public hygiene and says they shouldn't be allowed to live there because they encouraged vermin.
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The conservation watchdog said they were "an invasive, non-native species which has the potential to seriously impact on our natural environment and create a public health risk".
It stopped short of recommending a cull but their letter to the Orchard Millennium Green Trust warned: "Local authorities have a duty under the Prevention of Pest Act 1949 to take such steps as may be necessary to keep areas free of rats and mice."
The Muscovy colony has only just recovered from highly-infectious Duck Viral Enteritis (DVE) - or 'duck plague' - that wiped out around 40 birds.
A further 25 have disappeared without trace sparking fears that poachers are stealing them to sell or eat.
Officials fear well-meaning townspeople have been leaving out more food than ever to nurse them back to health, inadvertently attracting vermin.
There are also rumours that animal lovers have been releasing more ducks into the area to swell numbers.
Trust chairman Andrew Rudgley said members were still debating their response but accepted they needed to keep the Muscovy population in check.
He said: "If repopulated to the same numbers, and history suggests that would be the case, then the mess, hygiene, vermin issue and possibility of another DVE outbreak would return.
"At present I do not have any idea of how to deal with it."