once this is an encouraging environmental tale of recovery and
success. A species that was once nearly extinct in the county
is now returning to much of its former distribution countywide.
is one of the most elusive and difficult mammals to see in the
wild! If lucky, you may find footprints or spraints, especially
where streams join rivers or under bridges and around weirs (all
places where fish might congregate).
had all but disappeared from the county by the 1980's. Dieldrin
type pesticides were introduced in the 1950's; these poisons ran
off into rivers and accumulated in fish. Further harm to otters
was caused by human disturbance, loss of habitat as rivers were
"tidied" up and an increasing number of road deaths
as traffic increased. Only a tiny remnant population hung on in
the south of the county.
However, by the early 1990's there had been some movement into
the southern Solway coast of Cumbria from strong populations on
the Scottish side of the Solway. By the mid 90's colonisation
of the west coast of Cumbria had occurred and populations in the
south were recovering. Surveys in recent years have found evidence
of otters throughout the Eden valley and its tributary rivers,
on the Solway Plain and on the northern stretch of the west coast
of the county and on all the short rivers in the south of Cumbria
(see map). It is now fair to say that the species has recovered
in all its former habitats. Nationally there has been a similar
recovery; in 2011 their presence was again confirmed in Kent,
meaning that they had now returned to every county in England,
Scotland and Wales.
2008 numbers had recovered to the point where otters have become
a nuisance at many fisheries in the county. I recently watched
one for twenty minutes as it caught and devoured a 18-20 inch
carp from Ulverston Canal, which had been kindly stocked for it
by the local anglers' association!
the Solway coast otters are partly marine, hunting on rocky shores
with kelp beds and occasionally out to sea. Males may travel up
to 30 km, but females rarely more than 6 or 7 km. Mostly road
kills, therefore, tend to be of male otters.
otter has five toes, unlike cats and dogs with four. The toes
are strongly webbed, but this may not show in a footprint except
in soft mud. Indeed the smallest toe may not show, but the print
can be distinguished because it is not symmetrical. The rear paw
print would be about 11 cm from tip of middle toe to the base
(see image on the left of a left paw); the front paw is quite
a bit smaller at about 8 cm. The mink has a similar footprint,
but it is smaller in size.
leave their droppings or spraints in prominent spots. Recent research
suggests that spraints are less likely to be left if other otters
are present in low numbers or when supplies of food are higher
(mid-summer). The spraint is typically 6 to 8 cm long and 1 cm
in diameter and comprises mostly fish bones and scales. Dark when
fresh, it ages to grey - looking like cigar ash or 'coke' (an
old name for an otter spraint).
are smaller (smaller than a cat, whereas an otter is larger than
any cat), have a pointed muzzle compared to the otter's broad
muzzle and has a short bushier tail compared to the otter's longer
tail that is very thick at the body and tapers to the end.