Rise of otter population halted by winter floods

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Rising Waters and winter floods have severely harmed the slow but steady recovery of Britain's otter population. The conditions have forced the animals out of rivers and on to roads, where they have been killed by traffic.

Rising Waters and winter floods have severely harmed the slow but steady recovery of Britain's otter population. The conditions have forced the animals out of rivers and on to roads, where they have been killed by traffic.

In some areas, as many as one-quarter of the otters have died, while many young otters have also drowned in their dens, known as holts.

Despite being accomplished swimmers, otters struggle in the raging torrents seen recently, and problems catching fish in swollen and murky rivers have forced them to widen their search for food.

But their increased tendency to travel by land has come at a time when many underpasses, built to enable safe road crossing, have been submerged and unusable, and fatal encounters with cars and lorries have risen sharply since November's deluges.

The deaths, and forecasts that flooding will increase with global warming, are a blow to the otter's comeback, which has been progressing steadily since the 1980s. Otters abruptly disappeared from much of lowland Britain in the 1950s, probably because of the use of organochlorine pesticides.

Lisa Schneidau, director of the Otters and Rivers Project run jointly by the country's Wildlife Trusts and the water industry, said: "Populations have been undergoing an upward trend but this has come as an undoubted setback.

"We are trying to increase numbers of otters by encouraging them into new areas through the provision of good, undisturbed habitat. It has been going well both in terms of population recovery and raising public awareness.

"But the big increase in road deaths this winter is bound to slow progress. All we can do is work with highways authorities to make sure there are as many safe crossings as possible - and appeal to drivers to take more care."

Kevin O'Hara, a project officer based at the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, said there had been 26 otter road deaths in his county this year, one-third of them over the past two months.

"Although this is an otter stronghold, the population is only about 50 so that's a big percentage, and if the problem continues at this rate it could have serious long-term consequences," Mr O'Hara said.

Three of the deaths were on road crossings of the rivers Blyth and Wansbeck near Morpeth - one of them while it fed on a dead rabbit on the A1, a main route between Newcastle and Edinburgh.

"Otters eat a lot of rabbits, but the fact this one was tempted to scavenge on such a major highway could well indicate it faced difficulties finding fish in the flooded rivers," he said.

In another incident, an otter was hit by a car when it was disturbed while trying to catch ornamental fish in a garden pond in the village of Lesbury near the mouth of the river Aln.

In Hampshire, eight otters - four times the normal average - have been reported killed on roads so far this winter. Out of six road deaths in the upper Thames valley, west of Oxford, during the past 18 months, half have been in the past six weeks since river levels soared.

Graham Scholey, a conservation team leader for theEnvironment Agency, said: "This has been happening increasingly in southern, south-western and north-east England lately, and I imagine also in Wales and Scotland.

"Otters breed throughout the year and young do not become independent for a year. Some victims were females that were pregnant or caring for young that would not survive.

"So this increased death toll has a wider impact on a low population spread widely, with one otter covering river stretches of 15 to 20 miles."

Anyone who finds a dead otter is asked to call the Wildlife Trusts on 01636 677711 or the Environment Agency on 0645 333111.

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