|Swimming Otter by Charlie Gilbert (Age 9!!)|
The (much-needed) action was fully inspired by my nine-year-old nephew Charlie and his amazing winning entry in the school photo competition – see photo of an otter above, apparently captured while on holiday in France last summer.
I'm yet to see an otter for myself and certainly don't know if I could have snapped it as well. He fully deserves his prize of a digital camera and has yet another string to add to his bow. Not only is he a great wildlife photographer, he has one of the best imaginations I've ever come across too. Brilliant!
Not only has Charlie's photo inspired me to go swimming outside today (okay it was a heated pool) I'm also determined to see an otter before the year is out.
A bit of otter investigation reveals that the return of the otter to most of England is one of the conservation success stories of the last 30 years. According to the Environment Agency, otter numbers in England and Wales declined dramatically from the mid 1950s to the late 1970s, but a reduction in the level of toxic pesticides, an improvement in water quality and a subsequent replenishment of fish stocks have all played a part in bringing these wonderful creatures back from the brink. Sites showing evidence of otters have increased from 5.8 per cent in the first survey of 1977-79 to an outstanding 58.5 per cent in a similar study run in 2009-10.
Last year otters were spotted building their holts on the banks of the rivers Medway and Eden in Kent, a county to which conservationists had predicted that otters would not return for at least another 10 years. They've made their way as far as Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and the Thames, unheard of since pre Industrial Revolution. Indeed numbers have increased so much that some anglers are even up in arms about these 'wanton killers'.
WHERE TO SPOT AN OTTER
While otters are back in county in England, they are still elusive and shy creatures so actually seeing one with your very own eyes can be a challenge (unless you're world renowned wildlife photographer Charlie Gilbert, of course). So where is the best place to spot one?
The Canoe Man offers otter spotting guided canoe trails in the Norfolk Broads. Paddle down miles of undisturbed tributaries, dykes and streams and you might catch a glimpse of the UK's only wild otter, the Eurasian otter (lutra lutra). Kingfishers and bitterns could also be on the radar...
Scottish Islands and Highlands
The Scottish Highlands and Islands have the highest population of otters in the UK. In fact you're more likely to see otters swimming off coastal waters than inland. The Isle of Skye includes Kylerhea Otter Haven which is a purpose built hide and also The Bright Water Centre in Kyleakin, from where you can take a trip to Eilean Ban, the island out in the Kyle Straits where otter lover and author, Gavin Maxwell, lived for a time. Across the water from Kylerhea is Glenelg and Sandaif where Maxwell lived with his pet otters, immortalised as Camusfearna in his famous book, Ring of Bright Water.
Otters have been spotted at a number of RSPB sites around the UK including: Minsmere Nature Reserve in Suffolk (in January 2012, up to three otters were seen frolicking at the reserve's new Island Mere hide delighting visitors by swimming and catching fish – apparently January is one of the best times of year to see them); Leighton Moss Nature Reserve, Silverdale, Leicestershire where several litters of otter cubs have also been spotted; and Radipole Lake in Weymouth, where two motion-activiated cameras have been placed to catch otters at their antics.
Plus there's always a chance you'll see an otter without any guidance and completely in the wild. Members of the mustelid family (which also includes the lesser cute badgers, polecats and weasels) there are 13 species of otter in the world but the only ones you can hope to catch a wild sighting of here is the Eurasian otter. If you really want to spot one (yes please!), then here are some optimum conditions and telltale signs that say an otter may be near:
HOW TO SPOT AN OTTER
- You are most likely to see a fresh water otter at dawn or dusk when these secretive creatures are most daring and active
- By coastal waters – on Mull for example – otters are more governed by the tide than the time of day so study a tide timetable and set up your watch camp on an incoming tide
- Look out for an otter's holt, its home and rest area, where it also rears its young
- On land you can look for distinctive otter spraint marks – black slimy otter droppings with traces of fish bones and a characteristic scent of fish, freshly mown hay or even lavender!
- Also look out for five-digit footmarks with an almost round pad – on very soft soil, you might see evidence of webbing between the footprints
- In water, look for a V-shaped wake just behind the animal with just the tip of their head showing
- Otters have long streamlined bodies with dense underfur, a waterproof upper coat, rudder-like tails, short legs, webbed feet, claws and long whiskers
AMAZING OTTER FACTS
- Otters can close their ears and nostrils when they're underwater
- They can swim up to 12km per hour underwater and can hold their breath for up to four minutes
- Otters use their long whiskers to detect vibrations and movement while underwater
- They are playful animals and make loud chirping noises as they chase each other
- Otters eat fish but also frogs, crustaceans and small animals like voles
- They can live up to 10 years but the average is four
Make a note to get the audio cassette (hopefully now on CD) for Sylvester, as narrated by the one and only David Attenborough in 1978. And the 1979 film - an amazing collaboration between wildlife documentary filmmaker David Cobham, Gerald Durrell who wrote the screenplay and narrator Peter Ustinov. Going to go and look for some clips and the soundtrack by David Fanshawe and Tommy Reilly right now!
Strangely Henry Williamson was very ill when filming started and apparently died at the very moment when the final scenes were being shot at Instow Beach in North Devon. Tarka, played by a little otter named Spade, was handled by Pete Talbot and went on to live with wildlife film makers Ron and Rose Eastman in a water mill in Hampshire, along with four other otters, a barn owl, a goose and a German shepherd.
Here's the official trailer!