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Spotting otters in the garden

David Chapman / 26 November 2021

With otter numbers on the rise it's becoming increasingly common for them to visit garden ponds, although these elusive animals will be hard to spot.

Otter

Sleek, sinuous and spirited but also secretive and shy, the otter is a captivating creature which has charmed its way into our hearts. And yet I wonder how many of us have actually seen an otter in the wild?

Our love of the otter might be due in part to its appearance in literature and on television programmes. I’m thinking of Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and the innumerable wildlife films which have shown delightful behaviour in otter families albeit with some rather anthropomorphic commentary.

I wonder whether our passion for otters might have increased when their numbers plummeted in the 1960s and 70s. At the time some people blamed the release of American mink from fur farms for the decline in otters but this seems unlikely. Otters are much bigger than mink and can fight their corner. Unlike mink, which have a wide-ranging diet, otters are more specialised, certainly those that live entirely in rivers have a distinct preference for fish and the poor water quality of our rivers in the 60s and 70s resulted in fewer fish and therefore a decline in otters.

It seems to be in our nature, as humans, to support the underdog. So when the otter was doing badly it gained our support. Lots of otter sanctuaries were established. Injured otters were taken in for rehabilitation and those that couldn’t be released again were kept in captivity for breeding and reintroductions down the line. These sanctuaries needed money so they opened to the public and people could see for themselves how charming and delightful otters can be.

Otters have always fared better in Scotland where many of them use the sea as a hunting ground. Here they take a wide range of prey including fish, crabs and sea urchins. Their eyesight isn’t brilliant but they can change the shape of the lens in their eye to help them see on land or underwater. I always find it astonishing that the primary sense used by the otter when hunting is touch, they have super-sensitive whiskers. In fact their bodies are covered in super-thick fur, it grows at an incredible density of 50,000 hairs per square centimetre, compared to about 100 in humans. To look after their fur otters need to groom regularly in fresh water, so even those otters living in the sea need to find fresh water for grooming.

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With our help the population of otters has recovered. The water quality of our rivers is now improving, though it has a long way to go. Mink are on the decrease, otters on the increase and they can now be found across Britain, though they remain incredibly difficult to spot. The otters which frequent the coastal areas in the far north and west of Scotland can be seen during the day but those further south remain largely nocturnal and very secretive. But they are now quite widespread and increasingly visit gardens, particularly those not too far from rivers, streams, ditches or the sea.

I know for a fact that otters have visited the pond in our garden. I have found their droppings, which we refer to as ‘spraint’. Otter spraint is usually very dark, variable in shape but almost always smells quite sweetly of fish. I don’t mind otters visiting our pond, in fact I would be ecstatic if I saw one. My approach to gardening is to promote wildlife so we only have native creatures in our pond, the only fish are sticklebacks and I don’t mind the otter taking a few of those to support itself and its young.

We can all see a potential for conflict here. Some of us like to keep ornamental fish such as koi carp and I have a couple of friends who have complained to me that otters have been into their ponds and taken their prized fish. It’s interesting that they complain to me, it seems that because I love wildlife they think I am responsible! Ponds with prized fish can be protected by the installation of cages or similar but my friends left it too late, as I suspect many people do.

For those setting out in wildlife gardening I would implore you only to introduce native species of fish, and for that matter plants. Non-native fish will always reduce, and sometimes completely destroy, the natural diversity of life in the pond and though it might be nice to watch a colourful carp I would argue it is much better to watch the delightful array of wildlife that resides in and around a proper wildlife pond. It is the spontaneity and surprise of spotting wildlife which makes it exciting.

Whatever we do with our gardens we need to make sure that as otter numbers increase our hearts remain open to this wonderful creature. It would be a tragedy if our love affair with otters were to end just as we start to have real encounters with them!

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