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UK Wild Otter Trust Licence to Trap Otters The UK Wild Otter Trust has secured England’s first class licence from Natural England for the live capture & transport of otters.

Otter Facts

Otters

Classification
The European Otter (Lutra lutra) is a member of the family known as “Mustelids” and this family includes the Badger, Mink, Weasels, Stoats, Martins and Polecats. Otters are the only true semi-aquatic members of the mustelids family. The European Otter is the only native UK otter species and have been here since the last Ice Age, evolving millions of years ago.

General description
The European otter can grow up to 1.3 metres in length and can weigh up to 11kg. The male ‘Dog’ otter is larger than the female ‘Bitch’ otter. On average an adult otter will eat between 1-1.5kg of food per day. Their main diet is fish which makes up approximately 75-95 % of the food source, but they will also take birds, mammals, crustaceans and amphibians.

The gestation period is 9 weeks and they can breed at any time of the year, although in the Northern Isles of Scotland this is usually in the spring which tends to coincide with maximum food resources. Generally they have 2 or 3 cubs weighing no more than 40gms which are not born natural swimmers. The young will open their eyes within 5 weeks and will start to leave the natal holt at 10-12 weeks old. 

The Otter, despite being a strong swimmer, normally does not stay underwater for a long period, usually no more than 30 seconds at a time when hunting. The cubs will stay with their mother for up to a year and still be dependant. The young will start to leave thereafter, and breeding can take place from the age of about 17 to 20 months.  Otters in the UK generally only live for about 4-5 years, with the oldest recorded otter in Hampshire reaching 19 years. 

The Otter has excellent hearing and well developed vision with its eyes placed at the top of the head to enable it to keep alert whilst the rest of the body is underwater. They have an acute sense of smell and their whiskers (Vibrissae) are very sensitive and extremely important for fishing in poor visibility. They communicate by using whistles, twittering noises and spitting sounds which can be heard at night time when it is quieter and still. 

Otter faeces termed ‘spraints’ are generally 2-7cm long and will contain fish bones and scales, be tarry and black in appearance, but these will turn grey when old.

Fresh Spraint Old spraint x 550

A fresh otter spraint (left) and an older spraint clearly showing fish bones (right).

Otters also produce an anal jelly which can vary in colour (opaque, yellow/orange, green, brown, black). Both spraints and anal jelly smell sweet and are often deposited on stones, boulders, logs etc along or around a waterbody.

Otter Anal Jelly Otter Print Crop

Otter field signs: anal jelly (left) and tracks in bank side mud (right).

Habitat
Otters are generally solitary, territorial animals, nearly always found beside water. They mainly live along rivers, but are also found extensively in and around canals, marshes, ponds, lakes, ditches, streams, and estuaries and along coasts. 

Although otters travel large distances, most adults stay in a well-defined territory in which they feed, rest, and reproduce. Otter territories are measured as lengths of river bank or coast. The sizes of individual territories can depend on the quality of habitat, amount of food and even the number of ‘Holt’ sites available. Dog otters have much larger territories than bitches. One male otter’s territory generally overlaps those of several females. Otters patrol their beats constantly and defend their territory by using spraint as scent marking, but will also engage in direct territorial fighting. Territorial behaviour in otters helps to control population density by spacing out individuals. It also avoids over-exploitation of food resources.

Otters rest in underground dens (Holts) under waterside trees or in old rabbit burrows or in cavities in bank-side rocks.  Otters also use above-ground resting places, called couches, built on the banks of a river, stream or lake, and occasionally further inland, often in thick vegetation or reed beds.

Population status
Otters were on the verge of extinction in the 1950’s principally due to agricultural organochlorine pesticides being deposited into our river systems.  Over a recent period of time they have been threatened in various ways such as habitat destruction which includes road building and new developments. Recovery in the otter population began in the 1980’s and by 2011 (with the exception of the Isle of Wight) otters were found in every English county.  This recovery has in certain situations brought otters into conflict with fishery owners.

Fisheries
Numerous factors can affect fisheries, not simply predation. Similarly otter predation must not be confused with that of mink. Fisheries often provide otters with an abundance and easy to catch food source.  Fisheries for instance that hold large specimen fish such as carp in an enclosed water, without other fish species will be at a higher risk than those with multiple fish species and various sizes.

Ottered carp 2
The remains of a carp predated by an otter.

When planning new fisheries and with the current and expanding otter population sensible measures and financial allowances should be built into the management plan. Where feasible - Otter proof fencing, electric fencing/netting can all dissuade otter predation and minimise risk to your fishery.

Conservation/protected status
European otters and their holts receive full legal protection under both European & British legislation. Irrespective of the UK vote to leave the European Union in June 2016, the European Otter and their holts are still afforded full legal protection until such time that the legislation could be reviewed and if and where necessary alternative protections could be applied.

Otters are now protected principally under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2017), with additional protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), as amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. 

The combined effect of these is that a person is guilty of an offence if he/she:
  • deliberately captures, injures or kills any wild otter;
  • deliberately disturbs wild otters including, in particular, disturbance which is likely to:
  • impair their ability to survive, to breed or reproduce, or rear or nurture their young; or 
  • affect significantly the local distribution or abundance of the species; 
  • damages or destroys a breeding site or resting place of such an animal.
Or if he intentionally or recklessly:
  • disturbs an otter while it is occupying a structure or place which it uses for shelter or protection; or 
  • obstructs access to such a place.

(Note: Unless otherwise credited photographs courtesy of UKWOT or Angling Trust).

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