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Otters: The Great Debate

Rural Matters

Article written by 25 October 2012

Tim Watts wrote a very interesting article in the 6th edition of WPC dated 23rd August 2012. This provoked some response and we enclose three letters which take a different view.

Here at William Powell Country, we are interested in everything to do with the countryside and are not afraid to be controversial. Tim quite rightly holds a very strong opinion and to be fair to him, has enormous countryside and riparian experience. However, we are equally pleased to publish the views of Martin Browne, Grace Yoxon and James Williams.

We would be delighted to receive further correspondence on this or indeed on any other subject that our readers are interested in. We are intending to cover the very sensitive issue of raptors in due course!

James Williams writes:

The writer of the recent rant against otters challenges ‘those who release otters’ to point out that he is writing rubbish.  Well, I have never released an otter, nor has anybody since the mid 1990’s, except for a few repaired youngsters returned to where they came from by a couple of welfare charities.  But I think that much of what he says in not only rubbish, but harmful rubbish.  Not just the obvious factual exaggerations, such as giving their normal weight as  twice that of  a  very large otter, or  doubling the  amount each “deadly predator” can consume.  (If you think about it, all predators have to be deadly, to live.)  Nor in my opinion is the most harmful bit the obvious nonsense of a predator going to the trouble to catch difficult prey, and then pruning it a bit before releasing it , so that it can come  back at some  future date and  catch it all over again, presumably certain that some crafty fox or pike won’t have snaffled  it in the interval.  That is a myth, and it is worth considering why such a hostile myth originates.

Otters eat fish.  They always have.  That sometimes includes ornamental fish in garden ponds, and, when the water gets colder and the species introduced from warmer areas go torpid, including the valuable carp in heavily stocked commercial fisheries.  He mentions a carp called Mary, “fished for by two generations.”  She was an elderly lady, then, and having evaded otters for several years, was probably past her prime and at the end of her life anyway, so more easily caught. However, one recognises that this sort of thing is bound to be upsetting to the proprietors and out of their annoyance has arisen a whole raft of hostile myths about the otter. A lot of media energy is increasingly being wasted on calling for the otters to be culled.  If the badgers, one third of a million of them, are still protected despite the TB crisis, then it is certain that the public’ s favorite animal, only about five or six thousand strong, is not going to be zappable any time soon.

Nor is there any need for them to be, nor any benefit if they were.  The author conveniently misses out the fact that this species is strictly territorial, and limits its own numbers.  This major fact would of course have weakened the impression he wanted to give of massive damage to all the wetland wildlife by vast numbers of deadly predators.  It is not a myth that otters fight very savagely against intruders; I could show you photos of injuries on otters going for post mortem that would make your eyes water: even if the poor creature had survived, it would never have bred.  So culling an otter which has eaten your carp is futile; it just creates a vacant territory.

It is worth considering why this problem has arisen so recently.  For thousands of years there were otters all over England, more than there are now, but the fish evolved with them, and there were natural, mixed populations of several fish species occupying different niches in the watery habitats.  Now, most English rivers fail the Water Framework Directive’s criteria for biodiversity.  The outcry to remove all the otters so that the fish will recover, ignores the fact that we did remove all the otters, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, unintentionally, and by chemical means.  That it was unintended makes no difference; the otter disappeared from most of England and Wales, yet the fish did not benefit.   Many species underwent a boom and bust scenario, and the aquaculture industry mainly developed to try to restock damaged rivers, where there were  no otters and few fish.  The removal of the apex predator had skewed the balanced structure of the fish populations.  They are still out of kilter today, and simplistic thinkers point to the revival of the otters as the cause, forgetting that it happened before they  returned, and that it is still happening in those areas  which have not got a full population of otters back  yet.

Vilification of the otter is harmful in two ways;  it is in danger of getting the  angling community a reputation as greedy, selfish and short-sighted, and more importantly it draws attention away from the main problems  facing all our rivers and lakes; problems  about which the naturalists and the fishermen need  to combine.  A big step forward towards this is the forthcoming conference  in Edinburgh in  November, and I  hope the  writer of that article, and all who think as  he does, will be there to help work out a way forward for natural co-existence along our waterways.

Grace Yoxon writes:

I read your article with interest and wanted to follow up your request for someone to do some research.

But first, I would just like to make a couple of comments about the article.

Firstly otters are not 20kg – they are rarely above 10kg and in this country 8kg is about maximum.  Also you say they are a threat to wetland species, but they are a NATIVE wetland species themselves unlike mink.  But saying that I cannot argue that they do take things like ducks, although I have never come across them disabling birds and fish as you describe – I would be interested to know more about your experience of this.  However, when you are describing them as such enormous voracious creatures, I do think there is a certain amount of scare mongering.

There is also a problem that the media have been implying that there are loads of otters and this simply isn’t the case.  One report said there had been a 40% increase in 3 years on the River Ribble – simply impossible as they don’t breed that fast.  When the source was investigated for this report, it turned out to be the Environment Agency and they immediately panicked as it was an error so they changed their website but obviously the media don’t know that.  Otter surveys are done using spraint (droppings) and you cannot get population numbers from that.

Anyway, back to the research and this I think will interest you.  we are holding a one-day conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday 7 November 2012 to bring together otter workers and people in the fisheries. The aims of the conference are:

  • To create a working group that will do further research into the subject of otter impact on fisheries
  • To raise awareness of other issues that might be to blame
  • To examine and challenge common misconceptions about otters, their numbers and impact
  • To start a conversation that will explore how otter populations and fisheries can exist together

We already have representatives from various aspects of the fisheries including the Angling Trust, CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science) and Wild Trout Trust, plus ecologists and otter workers, and organisations such as the National Trust and Rivers Trusts, I am sure you will be interested to attend and have your voice heard.  I am therefore enclosing some further information and a booking form – you can book online at http://www.ottershop.co.uk/acatalog/Otters_and_Fisheries_Conference_-_November_2012.html

Martin Browne writes:

As a head river keeper with 25 years experience I was very surprised to read such an ill informed article on your web site recently. The otter is many things, but the wet lands worse nightmare ?  I think not.

For the last 11 years I have seen the otter return to my stretch of the Upper Avon in wiltshire. In 2001 it was a very occasional visitor, now I have two breeding bitches on my river. In that time I have seen no reduction in the number of wildfowl. As I used to be a member of Chichester Harbour Wildfowlers, any reduction would concern me despite no financial interest. With the return of the otter the number of mink I have trapped has reduced from 17 in 2006 to 2 in 2011. Water voles are returning to the valley for the first time in 20 years, I like to think due to good keepering and the return of the otter. Surely the writers ducks are safer without the destructive mink, driven off by the native otter.

We now come to the emotive subject of carp and otters. In the past 25 years the coarse fishing scene has changed dramatically. As a boy I regularly fished gravel pits where mixed populations of roach, bream, perch, pike and tench were the order of the day. Then carp farming arrived in the UK and it became possible to rear bigger and bigger carp for stocking into unsustainable fisheries. In my youth a 20lb carp made headlines in Angling Times, now they are a daily occurrence. In many commercial fisheries, these fish would not sustain their weight without daily feeding by ‘anglers’. Mixed lake fisheries are now uncommon as all other species are out competed by the un-naturally sized fish, which have considerable value. When an otter occasionally kills one, financial angst results. If a pheasant keeper has a release pen he protects it with an electric fence. If a fishery owner keeps carp in equally false conditions, he is a fool if he doesn’t follow suit. I have stew ponds which I have trained our resident otters to leave alone with electric sheep netting.

As I am a keeper, not a scientist,  I can’t quote food consumption rates, but I was stunned at the suggestion of a 20kg otter, Nonsense ! That equates to 44lbs if my maths is correct. Most adult biches are under 15lb and a dog rarely goes above 24lb. Indeed the heaviest dog otter killed by the East Lincolnshire Otter hounds weighed 26lb (1932-36). I chose this example as geographically close to your correspondent.

Finally on the subject of otter releases, I disagree with what was written. The otters that have spread into Southern England are primarily natural spread from the West country, Wales and the North where intensive agriculture didn’t poison the species out of existence. In the past Grayling were seen as vermin on my river, to be destroyed at every opportunity, now we see them as an indicator species, a mark of the waters health. We fishery managers should see the otter in the same light.

 

 

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