Our European Otter is a member of the same family known as “Mustelids” and this family include the Badger, Mink, Weasels, Stoats, Martins and Polecats. The Otter has been here for millions of years.
They are 1 to 1.3 metres in length and can weigh up to 9kg. Their main diet is of course fish which makes up approximately 80% of the food source but they will take birds, mammals and frogs if fish are in short supply. The gestation period is 9 weeks and they can breed at any time of the year although it is usually the Spring when this happens in preference. They have 2 or 3 cubs weighing no more than 40gms which are not born natural swimmers and very often they adults will force the young into the water for its first swimming lesson. The young will open their eyes within 5 weeks and the Otter, despite being a strong swimmer is unable to hold its breath underwater for a long period, usually no more than 30 seconds at a time. Otters are the only true semi aquatic members of the Weasel family.
Over a recent period of time they have been threatened in various ways such as habitat destruction which includes road building and new developments. They are also persecuted by fishery owners and gamekeepers as they are seen as a threat to the fish and game birds (which, by the way is incorrect) and if near the sea, fishing nets pose a considerable risk to this animal. The changes in traditional farming methods also plays a part in its demise with the use of pesticides and in a recent report (2013) by Cardiff University it has said that the pesticides & pollutants may be affecting the reproductive system of our Otters. In certain parts of the country, road deaths are considerably high which is something, here at the UK Wild Otter Trust we want to address by helping with under road tunnels to help reduce the number of road casualties.
The Otter has an acute sense of smell, hearing and eyesight and its eyes are place at the top of the head to enable it to keep alert whilst the rest of the body is underwater. They communicate by using whistles, twittering noises and spitting sounds which can be heard at night time when it is quieter and still. They live in holes in a river bank called a holt and it will have 2 or maybe 3 entrances in case it floods, with at least one entrance being above the water level. The cubs will stay with the adults for over a year and still be dependant. They young will start to leave at around 14 to 15 months and breeding can take place from the age of about 17 to 20 months.
Unfortunately, even though they have made a distinct comeback to the wild and our rivers, they rarely live beyond 4 years of age and the oldest recorded Otter reached around 12 years of age but this is exceptional. The reports now state that Otters inhabit every county in the UK which can only be good news for the Otter but our river systems still require extensive habitat management to restore them to such a level that can sustain fish stocks & wildlife to ensure that the otters reduce predation of stillwater lakes and of course so that anglers are able to enjoy a very historic and popular pastime. Lets hope that persecution is completely eradicated and that they are left to live a healthy life!
Below is a selection of photographs of spraints, tracks and other Otter signs. The best signs are of course the tracks but the other signs that can be found are:
spraints: The droppings of an Otter which are 2 – 7cm long, will contain fish bones and scales, be tarry and black but these will turn grey when old and naturally, they will smell very strongly of fish.
Anal Jelly: This is a clear like jelly and smells the same as the spraint. This can also be black and vary in colour.
Tracks/Footprints: The Otter prints can be found at the edge of river banks, in gravel, sand, mud and on tarmac if they have just left the river. They also have 5 toes which is a distinctive sign that its an Otter print.
Anal Discharge: You may find anal discharges on rocks and boulders. There is a picture below to help you recognise this sign :
The best places to find Otters and their signs are:
Under and near bridges
On boulders or rocks either in river or near the river
On old tree stumps or logs
At either end of shortcut paths
On gravel banks or sand and muddy areas
Around ponds and lakes
In marshes or reed beds
At river junctions or intersections
When out looking for Otters there are also some important safety advice to be given and are listed below:
Try to work in pairs
Only enter the water if its safe to do so
Avoid rivers in full flood or fast flowing sections
Beware of loose banks and slip hazards
Do not drink the water
Always wash your hands once completed
Beware of ticks and Lymes disease and consult your doctor should you feel unwell