A Quiet Celebration of Otters!

It is wonderful to see so much interest in our otters at the moment, with WMG Chair Poppy Morris describing her thrilling sighting of one near Tewkesbury on 9th January.  Back in September I saw an otter in the River Severn close to Upton-upon-Severn on consecutive Sunday mornings; and earlier in 2018 I watched one fishing in a farm pond near Colwall.  In Malvern, there have been reports of one or more otters visiting garden ponds at night to take fish. These local sightings fit the national pattern of more people enjoying views of otters as the species recovers from the pesticide-induced decline that started in the late 1950s.  We lost otters from Worcestershire between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, when spraints were once again found on the Severn and its tributaries as otters began to spread back downstream through Shropshire from the Welsh borders.  By 2011, otters were reportedly back in every county in England.  So, there is much to celebrate; but there is also much to learn and be wary of, because not everyone welcomes the otter’s recovery.

Following some cunning research to identify the cause of the otter’s decline from a long list of candidates, the current recovery was triggered simply by phasing out the toxic organochlorine pesticides that were introduced to British agriculture in the 1950s.  Now otters are well and truly back; and in Worcestershire it is likely that every river, canal and stream – as well as many isolated water bodies like lakes and ponds – support otters or are visited by them either frequently or occasionally; even tiny watercourses and ditches may now be used by otters, especially if they lead to isolated ponds and other wetlands supporting potential prey such as spawning amphibians.  One reason for this extensive re-occupation of our watery habitats is because otters are territorial, with individuals defending linear territories that may be many kilometres long.  Where the best territories are all taken, surplus individuals are pushed away from the main rivers and streams occupied by dominant otters, and this probably explains why otters are increasingly reported from unusual situations such as garden ponds.  This ‘doomed surplus’ sector of the otter population, forced to scratch a semi-nomadic living in sub-optimal habitats where mortality risks are higher (e.g. from road casualties), is likely to have a much lower survival rate and poorer breeding success than those otters holding territories in optimal habitat.

The current increase in live sightings of otters has two causes, one is simply numerical and one is behavioural: firstly, more otters means more potential for direct encounters with people; secondly, a reduction in direct persecution of otters has encouraged the species to regard we humans as less of a threat than previously.  So, otters are now more willing to forage in full view of a quietly watching person than would have been the case 50 years ago prior to legal protection (but they remain very wary of dogs – perhaps a legacy of the long history of otter-hunting with hounds in Britain). But this greater tolerance of humans brings a vulnerability to illegal killing that we should be aware of.  Some sectors of the angling community resent the otter’s recovery and wrongly assume that it will lead to a wide-scale decline in fish stocks; also, keepers of expensive ornamental fish such as koi carp are, understandably, not pleased when a hungry otter thins out their precious stock by night.

Through trusted contacts in Natural England and the Environment Agency, I know that otters are being deliberately killed in parts of southern England, supposedly ‘to protect fish stocks’.  This is illegal and, in the context of a widespread, fully recovered otter population, the least intelligent and least effective response to this type of conflict (whether real or perceived).  For any otter removed from its territory will be quickly replaced by a member of the ‘doomed surplus’ constantly on the lookout for a vacant territory, so any such ‘solution’ is bound to be temporary.  More intelligent and much more sustainable (and legal) is to seek lasting solutions to genuine conflicts, such as fencing otters out of isolated water bodies if their predation of fish has a genuine, proven impact on human or commercial interests (most of which are recreational, it has to be said).  Regrettably, illegal approaches to controlling predation are part of the teething pains surrounding the recovery of predators in Britain.  Like turning an oil tanker, it is taking a long time for some to bend to ecological wisdom and embrace the positive ecosystem benefits of our native predators; equally, there is still reluctance to adopt modern, sustainable solutions.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate the widespread return of our otters to Worcestershire and the thrilling encounters we might now enjoy; but let’s do it in ways that don’t infuriate those who are struggling to appreciate the otter’s recovery; and let’s make sure we don’t reveal details that might add to the risks of illegal killing. Finally, when hoping to spot a live otter, do bear in mind that, because most otters occupy very large territories, you need a large dose of luck to be sitting quietly in the right place to encounter one.