On Wednesday 2 March 2022, Stephen Powles gave a talk on Otters: Coming to a River Near You via virtual meeting on Zoom.
Sixteen members enjoyed a fascinating presentation on the life of Otters. Stephen lives near the River Exe in Devon. He has many cameras set up to automatically film otters near his home, and he also manages to film in person, as the local otters have become accustomed to his scent and are therefore fairly relaxed in his presence. He has come to know many otters over the years, the most photographed of which, he named “White Hammer Scar”, due to a distinctive mark on her nose.
Otters can live to ten years old, but most don’t survive longer than around five years: many are killed on the roads, by dogs, or in fights with other otters, particularly males.
It was interesting to hear that mink are often mistaken for otters, but are actually much smaller (around 1kg in weight, as opposed to 7-12kg for an otter). The otters that are seen here in captivity are often Asian Short-Clawed, rather than European varieties, as they are far less shy, and more active during the daytime. European otters will enter the sea to feed, but will always return to the rivers. True “Sea Otters” are only found off the coast of Canada and the USA: these live full-time in the ocean.
Otter populations in the UK declined rapidly in the 50s and 60s, due mainly to the over-use of pesticides and insecticides, which also harmed much other wildlife, but, since the ban on substances such as Dieldrin in the mid-seventies, the numbers have dramatically recovered.
We learned that the best way to detect otters is by looking for “spraint” (poo), which is usually on the highest point at a chosen spot; e.g. on a fallen tree or a small mound of earth. They will even build “sandcastles” on which to spraint. Under a bridge over a canal or stream is often a likely spot.
An otter needs about 1kg of food per day – fish, eels, crayfish, frogs or ducklings. Therefore, seeing signs of otters means that the river or stream is likely to be in a healthy state.
Inevitably the famous 1927 book “Tarka the Otter” by Henry Williamson, was mentioned: Stephen confessed that he had only fairy recently read it, but was in awe of the author’s “inside knowledge” of the otters’ life, given that this was written in a time before sophisticated cameras and recording devices.
- Submitted by Pam Loosmore, Vice Chair WFWI