The Cheshire Wildlife Trust on Otters
- Credit: Amy Lewis
There are few creatures that can spark an almost child-like excitement when we see one. Even for experienced researchers, the otter remains one of the species, as Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall reports
Just after Christmas, my colleague Chris waded into the muddy, flood-swollen banks of the River Gowy near Chester to retrieve one of our many infra-red motion detector cameras dotted at various locations on the region’s waterways. Knowing that the swirling waters were on the rise and the valuable equipment would no doubt otherwise end up floating into the Mersey estuary, Chris was soon at home and downloading the contents of the memory card.
Frame-by-frame it was the usual black and white story; reeds blowing in the wind, the occasional curious brown rat and the odd passing fox on the opposite river bank. Then, from the right hand side of the frame, peering with two penetrating white circles that cut through the infra-red glow like lasers, came a whiskered nose. With a wide head, low-slung swimming position and effortless athleticism against the endless flow of the water it could only be one creature – an otter.
This discovery was not new – indeed the Cheshire Wildlife Trust has been capturing otters on camera passing along the region’s rivers for a few years now – however, on this occasion that first pair of eyes were joined seconds later by two others. What we were looking at was an otter family, the first time the Trust has ever recorded more than two otters together on our cameras and the first confirmed recording of a family of the iconic mammals.
The pictures were made all the more special given that with it being such a shy and elusive species, the closest most researchers get to an otter in the wild is a muddy footprint, or more often a pile of poo. Curiously, despite their carnivorous and often fishy diet, otter poo in fact smells like freshly cut grass or Jasmine tea. Nevertheless, however fragrant their toilet habits, there really is no substitute for unmistakably seeing the real thing.
The appearance of the otter family celebrates an often challenging but recently successful revival in the fortunes of the ‘river king’ in Britain, a species perhaps most famous as the subject of the 1969 film ‘Ring of Bright Water’ or the 1920s novel ‘Tarka the Otter’. Indeed, the otter was only confirmed as present again in every county of England just three years ago in 2011, with Kent the last location to reveal they were once again on their waterways.
Just four decades earlier though the picture for this ‘apex predator’ of our wetlands was looking bleak. The 1950s and 1960s had seen a flurry in the un-checked use of chemicals in our countryside – the same damaging effects that saw the near demise of the peregrine falcon take centre stage in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
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Toxic pesticides and industrial pollution from our heavy industry saw our rivers, estuaries and their smaller tributaries choked, leaving otters with little prey and waters few of us would choose to swim in. By the 1970s, otter numbers had plummeted and the situation was critical with their last refuges being pushed to the furthest corners of Britain in Scotland, Wales, Northern Island and the South West. It was thought just a few hundred otters were left in the UK.
Thankfully, as the early 1970s witnessed an all-time low for otters, it also saw the beginnings of a turnaround. Bans on organo-chlorine pesticides in the late 1970s and the otter’s designation as a protected species both led the recovery. These changes, coupled with improved river quality saw our once lifeless rivers and estuaries take on a renewed health, along with a growing conservation movement that often put the otter at the forefront of its campaigns.
As the once notorious ‘Mersey trout’ were replaced with the real thing and the similar return of the salmon, so too the otters followed in close behind. As little as five per cent of 3,000 sites noted otters in 1979, but just 30 years later that figure had increased ten-fold. Today, it’s thought the UK’s otter numbers are once again being measured in the thousands, with some conservationists suggesting it’s just a matter of time before they once again pass under Tower Bridge in London.
As our modernising society has been able to re-set the clock on a few past histories for our wildlife, a few of our 20th century changes however, have begun to pose a new threat for the otter. Our ever-increasing road network in particular is now thought to contribute to a large number of otter deaths and our keenness for fishing has often seen otters face stiff opposition from stocked fisheries that provide an easy meal. None of these problems appears to has an easy solution, but continuing to improve the natural habitat for the otter remains at the forefront of current conservation efforts.
Here in Cheshire, the otter remains a cornerstone species along with the smaller water vole within what Cheshire Wildlife Trust is calling a ‘Living Landscape’ scheme. Using the landscape’s natural arteries and thoroughfares – hedges, rivers and other waterways – the Trust is working alongside farmers and landowners to maximise the benefits of looking after these habitats for wildlife.
From working with farmers to reinstate hedgerows and minimise livestock damage to riverbanks, to piloting natural flood defences and bank reinforcements that work with nature rather than against it, a wide variety of ideas are all at the heart of the scheme. Among these projects is reinstating former river corridors and wetlands along the route of the river Gowy, a scheme which has been supported by the Environment Agency and is already providing feeding and refuge for otters and water voles at the Trust’s Hockenhull Platts nature reserve south of Chester.
The Trust believes that by taking this holistic approach in parallel with the existing management of ‘hotspots’ for wildlife within designated reserves, nature will have more room to manoeuvre and remain resilient against even bigger threats such as climate change. Whatever the challenges at stake, it’s hoped that in years to come the otter will be making more small screen appearances along the region’s rivers.
Such has been the success of the otter’s return in the UK, conservationists from the Netherlands travelled to Cheshire to meet with the Wildlife Trust’s experts last year to discuss how to encourage otters back to Dutch waterways. Following their visit, which included travelling around the Gowy and Mersey rivers looking for field signs of otters and learning about waterway management and the construction of otter refuges or ‘holts’, the Dutch team reported that they had already tracked three or four otters across their local canal network. Within weeks they had also constructed two new otter holts which have already been visited by the local otter population.
You can read more about otters and see the video for yourself at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk.