Otters return to Essex

Otters return to Essex

Otters return to Essex - Credit: Archant

Andrew Fallan shares his expertise in Essex wildlife with us, sharing his views on the conservation and environmental issues that we face in the county and across the country

Regular readers of Essex Life may remember that last month I discussed one of our most iconic yet beleaguered mammals, the badger. Badgers also share their family group, the mustelids, with a species that is equally celebrated, has a similarly tragic history of persecution and is even more elusive and difficult to see; in fact, it is a slippery character in every sense of the word. Made famous by Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter and Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, it’s fair to say that otters have not only found their way into the nation’s affections, but have also been elevated to the status of wildlife superstars, as well as being something of a conservation success story. However, it wasn’t always this way.

Once widespread in the UK, otters were all but wiped out in the 1950s and early 1960s by a combination of agricultural pollution and habitat destruction, while the archaic practice of hunting them with dogs persisted until as recently as the 1970s, finally being banned in 1978. I personally find the idea of hunting any animal abhorrent, though I think most people nowadays would agree that it is inconceivable that these beautiful, charismatic and playful creatures should be subjected to such cruelty. It is tempting to assume that this is the result of a more enlightened attitude towards wildlife, though it should be remembered that there still appears to be a very real threat to the hard-won legislation which, a little over ten years ago, banned the hunting of both foxes and deer with dogs, not to mention hare coursing. Thanks to pollution control, together with legal protection and an improvement in water quality, otter populations are now recovering, although it is certainly no surprise to me that some anglers have already called for a cull of these animals.

Clearly the needs of wildlife must be balanced with the needs of humans, but I can’t help thinking that as soon as the behaviour of other species is perceived to be in any way undesirable, there will inevitably be those who start to point the finger and call for a cull which, let’s face it, is just a more sanitised way of talking about killing.

For me, this reflects an increasingly arrogant and intolerant attitude towards wildlife, with even our most petty grievances seeming to take precedence over all other considerations. Quite apart from their history of cruelty and persecution at our hands, the catastrophic decline of otters in the UK is a direct result of our own actions, so surely we owe it to these magnificent mammals to do all that we can to help them. In fact, it is very much in our own interests to do so, as quite apart from the joy and excitement they bring to those of us who are lucky enough to glimpse one, a thriving otter population is a good indicator of the health of our rivers, so from an ecological perspective their presence can only be good news.

Although it would appear that, due to the survey methodology employed, reports of their expanding population have been exaggerated, otters have now managed to claw their way back from the brink of extinction and return to every county in England, including here in Essex. On the River Colne, an otter was recently observed for around an hour in broad daylight, which is quite unusual for these generally nocturnal creatures, while on the same river one was spotted in Colchester town centre of all places!

As somebody who lives in the south of the county, I’m not overly familiar with Colchester, although I have a sneaking feeling that this is the very same stretch of river I recently walked past when visiting the town.

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I have only encountered wild otters on two occasions myself, although neither sighting was especially satisfactory and for one of them, I can’t even be 100% sure it wasn’t the superficially similar American mink. Several years ago, on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, I caught a frustratingly brief glimpse of what was most definitely an otter before it promptly disappeared from view – a real ‘blink and you miss it’ moment.

More recently, at the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve on the Suffolk coast, I witnessed an equally brief tussle, on the far side of a sizeable inland lake, between a very large, writhing fish and what appeared to be an almost fully submerged otter. Consequently, I think I can safely say that, next time I’m in Colchester, I will certainly be keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of these slippery wildlife superstars.