Elu­sive ot­ters

Devon Life - - Walk -

One thing which uni­fies all wildlife en­thu­si­asts is that you never tire of see­ing an ot­ter! For sev­eral years now there have been ot­ters present on ev­ery river in the county, af­ter com­ing pre­car­i­ously close to los­ing them com­pletely in the 1970s due to a fa­tal com­bi­na­tion of per­se­cu­tion and pol­lu­tion.

Over the years, their num­bers have grown in Devon and they are now a well es­tab­lished part of our river land­scape. And yet, for such a large an­i­mal, they are very sel­dom seen.

A large dog ot­ter will weigh up to ten ki­los and mea­sure over a me­tre in length, so this is a big mam­mal to miss. Their dark brown wa­ter­proof­ing fur will give them a mea­sure of cam­ou­flage against a back­ground of our grey brown river wa­ter, and they swim very low in the wa­ter, pre­sent­ing lit­tle pro­file to break the sur­face.

‘The chance of see­ing an ot­ter is as good as its ever been in liv­ing me­mory. How­ever if you do see one it’ll be a very for­tu­itous event’

Their be­hav­iour tends to take them out of our frame of ref­er­ence though, as they are mostly ac­tive at night and are very se­cre­tive in day­light hours. They seem to be par­tic­u­larly timid of the scent of dogs, so rivers which are pop­u­lar as dog walk­ing spots are poor lo­ca­tions to go search­ing for ot­ters; you’re best to stick to those hand­ful of ar­eas where dogs are re­quired to be on leads or are ex­cluded al­to­gether.

Fi­nally, ot­ters live sin­gu­larly or in small fam­ily units at the end of the breed­ing sea­son, within very large ter­ri­to­ries, so the den­sity of ot­ters in a suit­able area is al­ways low, mak­ing a chance hap­pen­ing a very no­table event.

That’s not to say they are never ac­tive dur­ing the day. I re­cently watched an ot­ter fish­ing in the tidal races of the Axe Es­tu­ary. It was eas­ily 300 me­tres from my van­tage point, but the arched back rolling though the wa­ter as it dived and chased fish was un­mis­tak­able. Ev­ery so of­ten it swam through the sur­face tuck­ing into a small fish as it swam, be­fore re­turn­ing to its bar­rel rolls in the tur­bid wa­ter.

I’ve been work­ing pretty con­sis­tently on the Axe na­ture re­serves this year and have got to know a va­ri­ety of lo­ca­tions where signs of an ot­ter’s noc­tur­nal ac­tiv­ity can be found. Even if you can’t see one in the flesh with­out a dol­lop of luck, they are very gen­er­ous with the field signs they leave be­hind, so it only takes a lit­tle while to de­velop your skill, get your eye in, and learn to spot ot­ter tracks and spraint.

Firstly the tracks. Ot­ters are mem­bers of the Mustelid fam­ily, con­tain­ing bad­gers, stoats and martens amongst oth­ers, so the foot has a char­ac­ter­is­tic five-toed for­ma­tion which I think of as look­ing like a flower with the ‘petals’ of webbed toes, ra­di­at­ing out from a round cen­tral pad. Once you’ve seen a few ot­ter tracks, you can be pretty sure of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in even poorly marked or par­tial prints.

The sec­ond thing to learn to recog­nise is their poo, known as spraint. Its not half as bad as it sounds, ot­ter spraint is pleas­antly scented a mix of jas­mine tea and olive oil; pick up a mink spraint by mis­take and the pu­trid stench is im­pos­si­ble to con­fuse.

Ot­ter spraint is nor­mally de­posited as a scent marker in prom­i­nent po­si­tions in or around a river, ditch or pond where ot­ters are ac­tive. And, as the an­i­mal is keen to spread its smelly mes­sage as widely as pos­si­ble within its large ter­ri­tory, the de­posits are nor­mally tiny con­sid­er­ing the size of the an­i­mal.

Fish bones are nor­mally vis­i­ble within it and it has a dark brown/ black, shiny coloura­tion. I nor­mally find moorhen poo is the eas­i­est to con­fuse with spraint but again, like the mink, the pong im­me­di­ately gives it away.

As men­tioned, the ter­ri­to­ries in which ot­ters live are huge, up to 50 kilo­me­tres of lin­ear river might be cov­ered by a sin­gle dom­i­nant male. Whether it is the de­fence of breed­ing fe­males or food re­source, when ot­ters clash within a ter­ri­tory the fights are fe­ro­cious! Male ot­ters will fight with the aim of bit­ing the testes or bac­u­lum (pe­nis bone) of the op­po­nent to ren­der the in­truder im­po­tent - per­haps an­other rea­son why they are so rare?

Ot­ters are pri­mar­ily fish preda­tors, which some­times brings them into con­flict with peo­ple, de­spite their scarcity. How­ever, their favourite fish is the Eu­ro­pean eel, so if you know of a lo­ca­tion where these de­clin­ing fish are present, you will do your chances of spot­ting an ot­ter no harm at all.

Noth­ing beats spend­ing time in the coun­try­side, ob­serv­ing de­tails. De­pres­sions through thick grass or rushes, look­ing like some­one has been drag­ging a length of drain­pipe around be­hind them is a good sign of an ot­ter run.

The chance of see­ing an ot­ter is as good as its ever been in liv­ing me­mory. How­ever if you do see one it’ll be a very for­tu­itous event and you are bound to be cock-ahoop! jwrchubb@gmail.com


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