“He rejoiced in the waves; he would hurl himself straight as an arrow right into the great roaring grey wall of an oncoming breaker and go clean through it as if it had neither weight nor momentum; he would swim far out to sea through wave after wave until the black dot of his head was lost among the distant white manes, and more than once I thought that some wild urge to seek new lands had seized him and that he would go on swimming west into the Sea of the Hebrides and that I should not see him again.”
Gavin Maxwell (1960) Ring of Bright Water. London: Longmans Green.
Gavin Maxwell’s beautiful and poignant account of life with a domesticated smooth-coated otter ignited my interest in these dexterous, intelligent and graceful creatures at an early age. Growing up in Scotland, I spent numerous family holidays in the Argyle countryside alert to signs of wild otters, and was rewarded one morning as I walked with my uncle along a quiet country lane. I’ll always remember my first sighting of a Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), crossing the path ahead of us before disappearing into the undergrowth.
The Eurasian, or European, otter has the widest range of all otter species yet is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near threatened. Thankfully there is some evidence that populations in Western Europe are recovering. In order to maintain this recovery in the face of road mortalities and the effects of ongoing habitat degradation, the otter is a European Protected Species and is also fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the UK.
Thus in the UK it is an offence to:
• capture, kill, disturb or injure otters (on purpose or by not taking enough care)
• damage or destroy a breeding or resting place (deliberately or by not taking enough care)
• obstruct access to their resting or sheltering places (deliberately or by not taking enough care)
• possess, sell, control or transport live or dead otters, or parts of otters.
These offences carry a potential prison sentence of up to 6 months, and the possibility of a £5,000 fine for each offence.
Unfortunately, recovering otter populations have been blamed in some areas for losses of stock within fisheries, which has led some to question whether the species is over protected. In particular, there has been concern over the rehabilitation and re-release of otters. Such rehabilitation, predominantly of orphaned cubs, still takes place occasionally in the UK, but interventions like this are likely to have a limited effect on overall otter populations. The otter project at Cardiff University estimates that 4-5 reintroductions of rehabilitated otters are carried out per year.
Persecution of otters, such as the setting of snares, may result from their reputation as predators of valuable fish. One such snare was recently found near Weston, where the trapped otter died despite efforts to treat him.
Otters will adapt their diet depending on what is available. It has been suggested that in lakes and ponds with good water quality, substantial submerged plant stands and healthy fish populations with good fish recruitment, otters may have limited impact. It is where the fish population is under stress due to factors such as poor water quality, little vegetation cover and fish diseases that otter predation has a larger effect.
One solution to the conflict between otters and fisheries, that both conservationists and anglers can help with, is to improve and maintain water and habitat quality in our rivers, lakes and ponds so that otter predation will be more sustainable.
The Environment Agency recommends that fisheries improve the diversity of lake habitats where they can, and consider the use of fencing where appropriate. Further guidance for fisheries can be found here: