RETURN OF THE OTTER

Otters give us hope - they show us how we can right our wrongs against nature. A quarter of a century ago the shy, handsome mammal had vanished from the great bulk of lowland Britain and clung on only in the remoter parts of the country such as Scotland, the Welsh borders and south- west England. Absence made our hearts grow stronger; through films and books masses of people came to cherish their playfulness and intelligence and the months of care they lavished on their young. Too bad that this magnificent fish-eater seemed headed for extinction in Britain just as we learned to love it.

Now we know they are returning across the country. Britain is the only place in Western Europe where otters appear to be making a strong recovery. They are still very rare across swathes of the UK, but you can be pretty sure that otters visit every river catchment in Britain. They move along rivers flowing through big towns and cities, mostly at night, and it is quite conceivable that one can be sleeping, snugly concealed, during the day while dozens of walkers pass by within a few yards. If the current rate of progress continues then within a decade or two anyone who wants to see a wild otter - and has the necessary patience - may succeed on a river near their home. The otter went into serious decline early in the last century, with the invention of the gin trap and more efficient rifles and the growth of gamekeeping. There was a short-lived recovery during the Great War. But then otter hunting with hounds became popular, and in one year hunt records show that 434 were killed for "sport" in England and Wales.

The most devastating decline of all began in the 1950s with the widespread use of long-lasting pesticides used to coat cereal seeds and in sheep dips. These poisons build up in fatty and oily tissues, and they reached high levels in eels - the oily fish which are the otters' favourite. These destructive chemicals were banned in sheep dips in 1966 and a much wider ban came in 15 years later. At last the species began to recover, pushing into abandoned areas from its strongholds in the West Country, Wales and Scotland. A gradual reduction in the river pollution caused by industry, agriculture and sewage treatment works also helped.

We know about this strong comeback from a series of surveys by Government agencies and voluntary groups over the past 20 years, some of which the Wildlife Trusts have participated in. The surveyors walk the riverbanks, looking for droppings or spraints - the more there are then, broadly speaking, the higher the population density. Spraints have a strange and not at all unpleasant smell, rather like jasmine tea. I found this hard to believe until I tried sniffing one.

The Wildlife Trusts have 13 otters and rivers projects around Britain. Between 1990 and 1995 volunteers and officers of the trusts built over 300 artificial holts - otter shelters. Most were made of piles of logs placed on the bankside, but more than 100 underground ones have been installed. The trusts have also been surveying rivers to find out what scrub and trees are there to provide cover for the creatures, and liaising with over 1,000 landowners to plant on denuded banks, fence off cattle and sheep which graze away the waterside shrubbery and restore natural features and vegetation to straight-sided, "canalised" streams and rivers. Allison Crofts, a Wildlife Trusts conservation officer specialising in otters, said: "They are recovering, but they're still not present in three quarters of the places where we think they should be. They still need our help.''

The return of the otter looks like being very good news for the water vole, which had gone into recent and rapid decline.

One reason for the plight of this little mammal - "Ratty'' in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows - is that it is preyed on by mink, which escaped from fur farms in the 1950s and now breed in the wild. Surveys have found that where otter numbers have grown fastest, populations of the much smaller and more numerous mink have dwindled. It appears the larger water mammal frightens off or attacks and kills the mink.

Otters are still very few and far between in south-eastern England and the Midlands. The total UK population is estimated to be 7,000, with up to 1,000 living on Shetland where they feed in the sea as well as in rivers and freshwater lochs.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape