Stuart Bullen: An otter sighting is a unique experience

An otter cub. Photo: IOSF EMN-140813-103346001
An otter cub. Photo: IOSF EMN-140813-103346001

In the no man’s land between the end of winter and the start of spring, a year ago, I was out with a small group of friends walking in the flat, watery world of Willow Tree fen.

While the previous night’s heavy frost was dissipating into the blue of the late morning sky, we moved along quickly, stopping only to watch some lapwings land in a nearby half drowned field. A slow furtive movement to the left of me caught my eye. I spun round to see the long tail and supine, arched back of a retreating otter. With the speed of a bolt of lightning, it shot into the undergrowth and out of sight. I stood dazed. I tried to catch my breath, the excitement nearly hyperventilating me. I composed myself enough to ask my friends if they had seen it. Yes they had seen something dash into the long grass but couldn’t be sure to what it was. Had I imagined that an exceedingly rare animal passed only metres away from me? We treated the flattened grass as if it was a crime scene. A couple of web toed footprints found in the peaty mud checked against those pictured on the internet, via our smartphones, and some sweet smelling oily looking spraints, confirmed I had seen my first otter in several decades. The rest of the walk was a real anticlimax for everybody else but for me those few seconds of being next to one of Britain’s elusive animals will stay with me for quite a while.

If you have visited the Isle of Skye or the Shetlands you may have seen otters swimming around the coast or the edge of a sea loch. But most people today, and that includes some serious naturalists and biologists, have never seen a wild otter in the lowlands of England, the nearest being at a wildlife centre or on TV. Centuries of persecution from gamekeepers, organised hunting and polluted waterways have almost made otters extinct in certain parts of the country and very rare in the rest.

But now with a Protected Species Act, cleaned up rivers and a more sympathetic view; this playful and utterly captivating but rather shy member of the weasel family is making a spectacular comeback, including in our local area. Otters usually are nocturnal and very rarely seen in the daytime. However with a little bit of preparation, some basic knowledge and lots and lots of patience you could find yourself having a unique wildlife experience.

To begin with: correctly identifying an otter. Seeing one on Springwatch on TV or a picture on the internet is one thing; in the wild it’s quite another. For example with a quick glance, a mink on a misty morning could be easily mistaken for an otter. This American mustelid was introduced to fur farms in the UK in the 1920s. Over the decades some escaped or were deliberately released into the wild and today there is a relatively strong population in the wild. This not good news for our native animals as it is a very effective predator of young birds and, in particularly, water voles – declining 94% according to one study because of mink. These American mink look remarkably similar to an otter; same shape and also has a similar riverside habitat. But an otter can be correctly identified by its size (an otter compared with the size of a small dog, eg a jack russell, is noticeably bigger, whereas a mink would be smaller), the colouring of the fur (otter have a pale creamy throat and stomach whereas a mink is nearly all chocolate) and its tail, for me the most telltale giveaway – no pun intended. An otter’s tail is long thick and tapered whereas a mink’s is bushy. A mink’s face, to my view, looks like a weasel’s; if you see what looks like a stoat on steroids running around a dyke it’s probably going to be a mink.

The next consideration is where to find them. This is quite tricky. Some places like Thetford in Norfolk otters are seen quite regularly during daylight hours (on the river outside the local Morrison’s with, quite literally, bus loads of photographers queuing to see them).But this is an exception, most otters are best seen at dawn in quiet local waterways. Around our area try the river Nene, in and around the Stamford area, Willow Tree Fen and other nature reserves near water. Locals in Bourne have mentioned to me they have otters swimming in the river behind the pub in Eastgate. Whether that’s due to a heavy night out is another story!! I have personally seen them quite a few times this year just outside Glinton in the river there. Check local wildlife sites to see if any have been spotted recently.

But where ever you go, even an otter hotspot, there is no guarantee you will see one. But don’t despair! Look for clues and you can at least find evidence of otter activity. Check the area for muddy slides down to water. Otters make these as they enter the water. No other UK mammal creates them. Check out for spraints – otter poop. These droppings have a black oily look about them and deposited around an otter’s territory as markers. Some people say, if you are brave enough, that they smell like jasmine green tea. I can’t say that it does. Maybe it depends on what brand you drink....

Otters are a must see for any wildlife enthusiast and their comeback a good news story in a world full of extinctions. They are not impossible to find but their exclusivity adds to the appeal of them. It might, as in my case, take decades to see one in the wild. From the 1970’s through to the 1990’s otters were on the brink; seeing one was seen as once in a lifetime experience. But with a healthy and ever increasing otter population it probably won’t take as long for today’s generation to find one.

Go on. Go for an early morning walk along a local riverbank and see what you can find!