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OTTERS IN CUMBRIA





For 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.

This 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).

Otters 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.

By 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!

On 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.

The 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.

Otters 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).

Mink 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.