Tarka the otter

otterholt01In the summer, walking the dogs along the river we noticed crayfish shells dotted along the bank, the sure sign of an otter. Twenty five years ago there were no otters along the Evenlode and before the hunting ban, otter hounds were reduced to hunting mink whose population had exploded. We caught nine in tunnel traps in our first summer here. Our otter, the Eurasian otter, is geographically widespread from North Africa to the Arctic Circle and from Ireland to eastern Russia. Largely nocturnal and solitary, it is naturally timid. The male [dog] otter is larger than the female, weighing 7 – 12 kgs. [15 – 27 lbs.] and is about 1.3m [4’] long including its large ‘rudder’ tail. Otters do not hibernate and are reputed to have the densest fur in the animal kingdom. Their life span is typically 5 – 10 years.

Otter numbers declined dramatically in the 1970s as a result of river pollution, habitat destruction and the introduction of organochlorine pesticides. Finally they were confined to Scotland and Wales. Protective legislation allowed recovery and by the 1990s they had spread east into the Severn Valley and were predicted to spill over into the Thames catchment area. In an effort to assist the re-colonisation of the Evenlode Valley a research group from Oxford University constructed a series of artificial holts along the river. These were substantial structures formed from mature willow trees cut and laid to create four inter-connecting rooms each about 1½ yds. square and with a solid brushwood roof. Otters travel quickly overland and can cover fifteen miles a night but it was still three or four years before they appeared here. They have ten times the body weight of mink, who are territorial competitors and since their return mink have vanished.

We see otters irregularly along the river now, and last year it was a privilege to spend twenty minutes watching one coming upstream hunting under the bank and periodically emerging with a crayfish which she crunchingly ate while treading water. When she surfaced opposite me, perhaps 10’ away, for a moment we stared at each other and then she gently sank away. A closer encounter occurred while fishing on the river Fowey in Cornwall. Standing in waders in 2’ of water I was amazed to see a stream of bubbles passing between my legs and out to mid-river where an otter surfaced and proceeded to fossick under the far bank oblivious of my presence. Truly nature is inspiring.

Bystander

December 2019-January 2020