by Mike Sutton March 2010
Otters are shy retiring creatures aren’t they? Not a bit of it....at least our local Bude otters aren’t. Up until recently I had only seen an otter in the wild once, some years ago, on the Isle of Mull, now I seem to be tripping over them all the time, not literally of course. These are not just fleeting, distant views either, but up close and personal.
I walk along the Bude Canal quite regularly with our dog, about once a week, and over the past month or so I have seen an otter on five occasions. One sighting near Whalesborough Farm Lock the otter was no more than a few feet away from me and at one point was nose to nose with the dog, neither of them seemed bothered by this. The otter continued to feed, with its characteristic rolling ‘duck dive’, surfacing a few seconds later with a fish which it held between its paws and chewed as it nonchalantly paddled backwards along the canal whilst keeping an eye on us. On another occasion at Hele Bridge there was quite a crowd of onlookers watching an otter feeding for about 20 minutes. It was making excursions underwater near the edge of the canal and under the bridge then returning to the bank to consume what it had caught, gradually working its way towards Marhamchurch.
Otters used to be quite a rarity in many parts of the country in the 1960’s but have recovered well in many places since the use of organochlorine pesticides in farming was banned in the 1970’s but there are still only around 10,000 otters in the UK and it remains a near endangered species across its range, which actually is huge. The same species we see, the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), is found in parts of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Devon has long been a stronghold for otters and the population there has fully recovered but inevitably this is leading to an increasing number of otter-human conflicts. This time the threat is from road accidents. I have read that over 50 otters are killed on the roads every year in Devon although this does not seem to be having an impact on overall population.
It has been found that the West Country’s smaller rivers support greater fish densities than the rivers of southern and eastern England because of the lower levels of pollution, however with increasing water quality in rivers across the country the otter populations are recovering almost everywhere.
A lot has been learned about otters since the 1960’s and its original description as a shy, nocturnal animal that couldn’t tolerate human disturbance has proved to be quite wrong. Certainly the Bude otters don’t seem to mind the human, or canine, presence. As you probably know, the canal towpath is very popular; there are people around at almost any time of year and in most weather conditions. I think it is probably the healthy fish population in the canal which has allowed the otter population to thrive and I hope the fish stocks remain high enough to satisfy both the otters and the local anglers. I am told there is probably only one otter family on the canal but I’m sure there must be others in the area and I hope that we can continue to have close encounters with this charismatic animal.