In 1974, the village of Horning was sealed off and motorists entering and exiting the village were stopped, questioned and warned about an unknown disease which was wiping out coypus in the area. It caused confusion and mild panic among local residents and visitors, the news of the epidemic even reaching the national press in the following days. But all was not as it seemed …. this is the story of The Great Coypu Hoax.
Rag Societies have long been a fixture of universities, a term given to fund raising bodies run by the local Students Union. An annual “Rag Week” provided the perfect excuse to have a bit of fun whilst raising money and elaborate pranks were often part of the week long series of events. In 1974, the students of the University of East Anglia brought the village of Horning to a standstill with one such prank as they set up roadblocks, supposedly as part of a coypu control exercise. Claiming to be from the Department of Bacteriological Research at Porton Down in Wiltshire, the team stopped all vehicles passing through the village asking whether they had seen any dead coypu in the area within the last few months. The coypu, they informed people, were suffering from an unknown disease which seemed to be centred around Horning. It was stressed that the germ was not dangerous to humans, their pets or livestock, vehicle tyres were sprayed with disinfectant and the motorists were sent on their way. Local villagers were interviewed and even the local bobby tuned up in his police mini and was, rather embarrassingly, taken in by the official looking nature of the survey, although was apparently somewhat surprised that he hadn’t been informed about it. The students were eventually rumbled, and the story made the local news the following night.
Coypu, were large, herbivorous rodents which were native to South America. Growing to around two feet in length (minus the long, rat-like tale) with bright orange front teeth, coypu were brought to the UK in the 1920s to be farmed for their fur. One such fur farm was established at East Carlton Manor to the south west of Norwich. Following the collapse of a roof, a large number of coypu escaped from the farm in 1937 and, within a few years, had spread throughout the Broadland district causing widespread damage to the riverbanks as they voraciously chomped their way through the reed beds. And so a long running campaign to eradicate them from the Broads began, a bounty being placed on the head of each coypu caught and handed in at one point. There were those who felt that the coypu were actually helping to keep the waterways clear and open, and others who feared that the creatures would suddenly start attacking passing boating parties. The coypu control programme continued and the last survivor was believed to have been caught in the late 1980s, some 50 years after they first began to colonise the waterways.
The Great Coypu Hoax of 1974 was filmed by the UEA and it has recently been uploaded to YouTube by Derek Williams – persevere to the end and the Look East TV news report and interview about the stunt. It included a little gem about a previous hoax at Horning a few years before when the local vicar apparently crowned and kissed the winner of the annual village beauty concert only to discover later that it was actually his teenage son in drag!