Friday, 21 December 2012


I have just watched the "Springwatch Guide to Otters" on the TV.  Very worthwhile programme. Otters are on the increase in the UK, with the latest figures suggesting that there are about 2000 in England, and some 8000 divided between Scotland and Wales.   Many of these, especially in Scotland will be seafaring individuals, still the same species, but with their behaviour very different, being affected more by the cycle of the tides, than by darkness and the nocturnal habit.  Their numbers are still below those recorded up until the fifties, even though otter hunting was still legal back then.  I don't think otter hunting was ever very successful, being more of an excuse for grown men to go and paddle about in the river.
The 60's and 70's were not good for the otter.  Pollution of the rivers, and pesticide aggregation in their food chain had a dramatic effect on numbers with less than 10% of the original numbers surviving.  |The recent numerical increase has been mainly due to our rivers becoming cleaner.  Many anglers, some of whom actively detest the otter, blame the Otter Trust, who did indeed introduce 117 animals into the wild between 1983 and 1999. No others have been released since.   But natural recovery was a far stronger force, and the numbers would have recovered very nearly as quickly even without the assistance of the Trust.   It is my belief than anglers themselves have done more to increase the otter population than all the efforts of the Otter Trust. The last 30 years has seen the emergence, and indeed the proliferation, of "commercial" freshwater fisheries.  These are heavily stocked waters, holding so many fish that even the most incompetent of angler would find it difficult not to catch fish.   And the otter is far from being an incompetent fisherman:  an opportunist, it sees these waters as  fast food takeouts, although the carp that are often stocked, are far slower than the trout in the otter's more usual haunt.   So the carp become lunch, and dinner, and breakfast.  Expensively so, because anglers like to catch big fish, and to stock big carp is an expensive business, very expensive.   Rivers too have had their fish populations augmented by anglers, who throw in huge amounts of high food value bait, in order to attract their quarry.   What happens is that the rivers become, like the lakes, greatly overstocked with big, fat, obese fish.   Such fish are slow and easy targets for otters, which are recovering into an environment that now has massive food surpluses for all.  Eventually the otter numbers will settle down and stabilise, probably at a higher level than that of the fifties.
Otter hunting will never be made legal again: public opinion sees otters as lovable cuddly creatures. "Tarka the Otter", and "Ring of Bright Water" have firmly cemented the otter into the British conscious, and they will never allow them to be culled.   Anglers will have to accept that as status quo, like it or not, or they will see calls for angling itself to be restricted. 
I had never seen a wild otter until some 18 months ago.   I was fishing in Warwickshire at the beginning of the season, in a small river.  It was low down, carrying little water, and after 24 hours or so I had taken one barbel and about 15 chub, mainly from a swim containing a dead tree, which was lying in an upstream/downstream orientation, the trunk being visible a few inches above the water's surface.  About mid-day, I noticed a movement upstream of me. I quickly realised it to be an otter, which came downstream, climbed onto the dead tree, and slowly walked past me along the trunk.  There is no way anyone, ever, should confuse mink with otters.   It paused for some 20 seconds to take a good look at me but was seemingly unimpressed, and totally ignored me.  Its whiskers gleamed in the sunlight, and it eventually slipped away downstream, leaving a short trail of bubbles, showing where its path had been.  The animal was no more than 5 or 6 yards from me.  I am unable to provide a photograph, my camera being in my rucksack at the time, and I had sat immobile, not wanting to move and scare the otter.  I have to say that the creature was utterly captivating, and I felt so privileged to see it in broad daylight. Had it dived in to take a fish, I would not have minded one jot. It was in view for no more than a minute, but what a minute!  As a wildlife moment it surpasses even that of a little shrew in the Lake District which unconcernedly  allowed me to approach and actually stroke it, before it ambled away into the forest.