Forget the boybands of the 90’s, the best comeback of the decade has to be the otter. Nearly wiped out to extinction during the 20th century, numbers of these much adored creatures fell perilously low. Due to a combination of hunting, habitat destruction and harmful pesticides, these beautiful guardians of the waterways appeared to have no future as by the 1970s, they had almost disappeared from every waterway in Britain.
Otters are a top predator in the food chain with a diet consisting mainly of fish, and also small water birds and frogs. One of the biggest reasons for their decline was in the use of dangerous pesticides by farmers – as this travelled from the soil to smaller animals and up the food chain to the otter, it became more concentrated, becoming fatal to otters. Of course, this was a problem to all of Britain’s top predators. Another challenge that the otter faced during the 20th century was habitat destruction. A solitary creature, dog otters need large areas of riverbank to roam which is classed as their territory – as the industrial revolution marched on through Britain’s countryside, otters became a huge casualty of it. This also caused pollution to the waterways, the otters home and food source.
With all of this going on, it is little wonder that the country, heartbreakingly, nearly lost these beautiful animals for good. Otters are slow to reproduce, most females only ever having 2 litters of cubs in their lifetime, as the cubs stay with the mother otter for a long time. So although the recovery has been slow, with a ban on the poisonous pesticides and efforts being made to clear up the riverbanks and coastlines, otters have now been reported to be back in every county in England.
As they are so shy and prefer to hunt at night, you still may have only a little chance of seeing one in the wild – but there are many great places that you can visit them up close, and even see what you can do to ensure their survival. Otters and Butterflies in Buckfastleigh is a lovely day out where you can see otters from all over the world and Britain up close, and Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire also host otter events and can teach you more about their conservation. If you would like a beautiful otter in your home, Gill Parker bronze animal sculptures are the next best thing to the real thing and you don’t have to feed them!
If you are however hoping to get a glimpse of an otter in the wild, look out in the day for tracks and spraints – the giveaway that otters are near – and venture down in the evening (very quietly) and if you are very lucky you may spot one of these wonderful creatures enjoying itself back where it belongs again.