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! firstname.lastname@example.org