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August Otters

Rural Matters

Article written by 23 August 2012

August and the first of the main crops are being harvested in the Suffolk countryside including vining peas, rye grass seed and oilseed rape. The land is now clear and we should start to see more evidence of this year’s young stock of wild birds if anything has survived the cold and wet spring and summer.

There are good numbers of two parts grown leverets, a few coveys of Red legs and the odd sparse family of pheasants. Pigeons have started to show again in the fields, although as usual at this time of the year, very few squabs venture out on to the open fields. It is difficult to believe many squabs will have survived the torrential down pours of the summer but we will not know for sure until the first week of October that we will know.

In essence the cold wet spring and summer has spelt disaster for most of our natural fauna and as far as game species go, it will be up to the game rearing industry. The game farmers and diligent keerping in the lowlands will hopefully produce a harvestable crop to ensure the viability of these Sporting Estates and give others the enjoyment of bagging the meal for the table. Our sporting friends in the uplands without the game farmers support with the grouse are not so lucky. I am sure many will be finding things very difficult. This will undoubtedly be a year when for some Moor owners and syndicate members, they will be footing the bill for managing Britain’s uplands with little income support from let shooting. This is particularly the case in the West.

On the up side, the Spring and Summer rains have freshened our waterways and doubtless started to replenish our water table. The continuous wet has sealed lighter land soil areas to once again create wetland flashes which were cracked by prolonged periods of low rainfall. However, we now have the resurgence of a new and deadly predator on our waterways; our wetland creatures’ worst nightmare; the otter.

On our waterways and ponds what few Mallard we have left have enjoyed a good year. However, how many will survive the Otter attacks again this autumn remains to be seen.

On the home farm here in Suffolk our ponds with a little extra feeding would produce a hundred and fifty to two hundred young Mallards. This from a resident breeding flock of some thirty to forty birds. Regular predation from Otters over the last five years has left us with three or four nervous pairs who spend most of their time safely inside the five foot electrified wire fence with my ornamental birds!

We all love to see the Otter. What a wonderful animal with its playful antics, cheeky face and furry cuddly coat; who would not smile while watching it on the TV screen. In reality very few will actually see him in the wild, but unfortunately plenty will witness his degradations. The prized koi carp left half eaten on the lawn in the middle of the suburban housing estate. The thirty five pound specimen carp known as Mary, lived and fished by two generations left half eaten on the lake island Jemima puddle duck lays dead in the shallows, with it’s head chewed off . It’s friend’s standpetrifiedd on the bank like surfers after a white shark attack.

These stories, I, as a Fisheries Contractor and Environmental Consultant hear week in week out and I know from personal experience, the loss of valuable stock or treasured pets can be extremely distressing. However, it’s the wildlife disappearing that we don’t necessarily notice that seriously worries me most. The species living in the wilder wetland areas where they are in-reality more vulnerable to predation from Otters. When I hear and see waterfowl and fish being continually plundered from far less remote areas it makes me wonder what is happening to the truly wild creature populations in our river valleys which are classic Otter territory. Have the Otters simply run out of food because of over-fishing and the fact they have no predators?

Being a fish farmer there is little doubt we have benefited from the Otters activities whether its replacing fish or controlling weed previously controlled naturally by the fish. However, I am extremely concerned about the future of our wetland creatures. We can supply replacement fish that may one day grow as big as the thirty pounders that are killed each Winter, and maybe we can fence all the ponds and rear more Mallard (not a great idea for natural breeding genetics), but replacing everything from moorhens to bitterns and specimen Chubb to Eels will not happen.

Watching the Otter rolling around in the water like a stoat cavorting on the spring grass is a fantastic sight and those of us lucky enough to see such a spectacle rush for the camera. However, these wonderful creatures and their playful antics disguise the fact that these are skilled and deadly hunters. Any inquisitive creature lured will pay the ultimate price (fortunately us humans with the camera are just a little too big!). I hate to say it, but for our water creatures the appearance of the Otter in their neighbourhood is their worst nightmare. There is nowhere to swim to there is nowhere to hide, fly away without our friend Tarka being there waiting for them when they return.

He is brighter than the Mink. Instead of storing dead food he will disable his quarry once his tummy’s full. He will chew off the beak and legs of birds or the mouth and fins of fish. They, unable to swim or see the bird or fish will remain alive fresh meal for days, very gruesome! He needs more than one fifth of his twenty kilos body weight per day to keep up with his playful activities. He knows no other creature will dare take his prey, but nonetheless he or she will often move on after a few days so as not to attract attention. He will log where the remaining food supply is and return every few weeks until it is exhausted or spooked elsewhere.

The Otter is an extremely intelligent, skilled and clearly adaptable hunter. My worries are that in our shrunken wetland areas of Britain today there is no longer sufficient sustainable quarry species to sustain him. The fact that a once secretive and wary hunter of the wilder parts of our country is roaming the arable prairies of East Anglia and the Urban gardens of Ipswich in search of food, is a serious worry.

Recently I visited the Wetland Centre at Slimbridge, looking at the truly amazing collection of water fowl from all over the World. While walking round, I could not fail but notice the sign and sound advice ‘. Please shut the gate to prevent foxes entering and predating the waterfowl’. Foxes! I thought to myself from personal experience, they would be a small inconvenience compared to the Otter in a run of pinioned waterfowl. Let’s mention the Otter on our sign and be honest with the public it kills and eats Ducks and fish! It may look a friendly cuddly enough chap, frolicking in the water behind the glass screened enclosure within the park. In reality it is the most skilled hunter and killer to roam our waterways.

The Otter is indeed a beautiful animal whose release programs all over Southern England and subsequent revival are rightly (and in some ways) heralded as a fantastic success for conservation by our Wildlife Trusts. However, I am far from convinced that its proliferation will be anything but. I am not a particularly religious man but the words come to mind for those who have pioneered the release of Lutra vulgaris “forgive them lord for they know not what they do.”

Perhaps I am being alarmist, but we live three miles from a registered water course in an intensive agricultural part of Suffolk. We have seen a 90% reduction in our resident Mallard and the total clearance of fish from the surrounding ponds. We get at least at a call a week from locals losing fish and I know locally many people giving up keeping ducks and geese because of their losses. The only place you will find the local duck and fish populations thriving is behind electrified wire fences. Local vets receiving large koi carp killed and eaten from the middle of Ipswich our local town. Are otters simply running out of food in the countryside. Why these traditionally shy and secretive animals risk confrontation with cars would, dogs and humans unless they were very hungry or are these quite simply a different species from those that once patrolled the vast uninhabited wetlands of the past?

I would very much like to hear from the organisations managing are larger wetlands the RSPB, Wetlands and Waterfowl Trust and various Wildlife trusts that research is being done. When I see protection being installed on a tern raft to stop raiding Otters ( terns are, sea birds that would usually see off an Arctic fox!) you surely must ask yourself what is happening to the shore nesting ducks and waders tucked away in the reed beds where the otter can hunt unmolested!

I know that what I write is very contentious, but it is true. I would challenge those who release Otters to reassure me that I am talking rubbish and the wetland creatures are dealing with the Otters return and are perfectly sustainable. We all accept that there has been habitat destruction, as well as pesticides and over hunting, but we are talking here of declines in the last five to ten years. I don’t think there has been that much of those factors to have much effect on the fortunes of the otters prey. What I wonder, the future holds if instead of otters dying out, everything else does and then they in turn will as well.

 

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