Mammal of the Month: Otter

Dan Brown

 

From historic villain to come-back king, the Otter is now widespread throughout the UK, though getting decent views of one is far from easy. Here’s a few top tips on tracking and seeing Otters close to you

An attractive and charismatic mammal, Otters can occasionally be very approachable, especially on Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/)

An attractive and charismatic mammal, Otters can occasionally be very approachable, especially on Shetland (http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/)

The Otter (Lutra lutra) is one of Britain’s most charismatic and endearing mammals. It seamlessly manages to combine the cute and cuddly appeal, with the tenacity of an animal that has mastered all the Atlantic can throw at it, and if that wasn’t enough they have suffered mercilessly at the hands of humans.

Otter are however the come-back Kings! For as long as can be remembered they have been hunted, firstly for pelts then latterly in a war against aquatic predators raiding fish ponds, stocked lakes, and important fishing rivers. More recently pressure from agricultural changes including the use of organochlorines and the loss of suitable river-side habitat has further pressured the populations. Thankfully things are on the up. Otters are now fully protected and have re-colonised much of their lost ground. Recent population estimates suggest that the Scottish population is at carrying capacity whilst both the English and Welsh populations have seen dramatic rises. Their rural increase and the provisioning of artificial holts has helped them spread into urban areas such as Glasgow and Newcastle, as well as inner city Birmingham.

The cute and cuddly! This Kit has just finished drying itself (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

The cute and cuddly! This Kit has just finished drying itself (http://www.shetlandnature.net)

Otters are easily identified. Their aquatic nature is a good starting point although they do spend up to 50% of their time out of the water and, in preference, somewhere close to woodland. In general however it is close to water that we see them. Occasionally they can be mistaken for Seals along the coast but the presence of the tail at the surface plus the very obvious bum and tail as they up-end and dive makes them easily identifiable.

Head and tail are both visible at the surface. When they dive, the rump and tail get elevated with a final flick of the trail as its submerges. This was taken from the Quay in Portree Harbour

Head and tail are both visible at the surface. When they dive, the rump and tail get elevated with a final flick of the trail as its submerges. This was taken from the Quay in Portree Harbour

On land they have a low and long silhouette, with powerful hind quarters. They can be frequently heard before being seen producing a high pitched whistle, amongst other calls. In fact its even possible to whistle Otters in if you can reach the high notes!

Even on land Otters show a very low profile with powerful hind quarters and a long tail

Even on land Otters show a very low profile with powerful hind quarters and a long tail

One of the great things about Otters is how easy they are to track and detect. Riverbanks, lake and seashores can all produce signs of Otters from fresh tracks in mud, sand or snow to spraints (distinctive curls of dung in prominent places). The tracks are distinctive in often showing the webbing between toes, and if not visible, the toes are generally well spread and the pad elongate. The long tail is also frequently visible in the tracks as it trails along the ground. The tracks/movements are not just confined to the proximity to water as Otters can and will make considerable movements overland so encountering tracks, often miles from the nearest suitable habitat, is not impossible.

Otter tracks in the snow over the Scottish mountains. Note the wide spaced toes and the elongate pad

Otter tracks in the snow over the Scottish mountains. Note the wide spaced toes and the elongate pad

Spraints can are generally found on prominent features close to rivers, lakes or seashore. They can also be found around holts and couchs. In general they act as territory markers so can be particularly noticeable at the confluence of rivers. Fresh spraints are pungent and not pleasant but this in itself makes them very distinctive. As they decay they often leave the indigestible elements of the meal such as fish and amphibian scales and bones respectively. In general locating spraints is the first indication that Otters are in the area.

A fresh spraint on a hummock close to a hill stream

A fresh spraint on a hummock close to a hill stream

Older spraints showing many amphibian bones

Older spraints showing many amphibian bones

Otters tend to solitary, coming together to mate, although later in the year, once kits are large enough, family groups consisting of a mother and her offspring maybe seen. These can be playful and often very approachable given caution and a bit of fieldcraft. As you approach an otter remember to freeze every time it re-surfaces or turns to face you. Using this technique you should be able to edge closer and get great views of a stunning animal.

Though generally solitary Otters do come together to mate

Though generally solitary Otters do come together to mate

Otters can be particularly approachable when hunting and feeding but take care not to disturb them

Otters can be particularly approachable when hunting and feeding but take care not to disturb them

Thankfully Otters are now incredibly widespread across the UK, and seeing one is more a matter of perseverance than going to specific sites, however, there are a few very reliable sites where Otter can be encountered including:

Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk

Minsmere, Suffolk,

Leighton Moss, Lancashire,

Loch Fyne, Argyll,

Portree Harbour, Skye

and by far the best of all, Shetland. In fact Otters are so obliging and well-studied up there that Shetland Nature now offer tours specifically to enjoy these amazing animals, see here.

For more info on Otters see:

http://www.ukwildottertrust.co.uk/the-team.php

A stunning portrait of Shetland Otters. For experiences like this see: http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/

A stunning portrait of Shetland Otters. For experiences like this see: http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/

 

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