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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executive - OTE £37,000

£16000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The ideal candidate will want t...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor