OTTERS
Lutra lutra

by Tony Taylor (Wigtownshire)


It has been something of a surprise to me that despite the many early mornings and late evenings I have spent at lonely locations by rivers, pools and coast in England and Wales, I have never once seen an otter in these countries and yet in similar circumstances in Scotland I have seen a good number.

 Otter Stronghold

There can be no doubt that Scotland, or at least most parts of this country, is still an otter stronghold; reports have been made of otters being observed on occasions even near the centre of major cities.  Why this should be so of Scotland is open to debate, but some time ago a TV programme suggested that one of the major reasons for the lack of otters in many suitable places in England was the high mortality rate of these animals from road accidents.  So many were being killed in this manner that numbers became too low to sustain a viable breeding stock in any given area.

Road Sense

Much of Scotland is of a rural nature with relatively light amounts of traffic on the roads and, probably more important,
there are considerable areas of countryside with virtually no roads through them at all.  In addition there are hundreds of
miles of uninhabited coastline for otters to thrive along.  It is obvious that otters are very vulnerable to road traffic, as
they are regularly found dead or injured, even on local roads in my area (S.W. Scotland), which my most standards carry very
light levels of traffic.

Otters are rather like hedgehogs in their attitude to road traffic; they simply do not appear to recognise the danger it
presents and will carry on with their activities oblivious to the dangers.  Fortunately roads are not their normal habitat and
they are only present on them when crossing them or when they stray from their journey up some roadside ditch.

Otters are by nature usually great wanderers and will travel considerable distances looking for food or for a safe place to
have their young.  In the south of Scotland otters regularly travel between the sea and fresh water, however, the further
north one goes the more of a marine creature the otter becomes. This could be due to the limited food fresh waters in the
northern half of Scotland offer to otters, except for isolated instances of course.  By comparison the sea in that area can
provide suitable food items for most of the year.

Whilst Glaucus is a magazine for the marine enthusiast, some mention of otters in the freshwater environment is inevitable
when dealing with these animals.

 Clachan Otter

My first sighting of an otter was about 30 years ago.  I was staying in a caravan on a croft in an isolated place called
Clachan, which is just north of Lochinver in Sutherland, N.W Scotland.  On a late evening walk along the single track road we
came near to a small pool, the pool being connected to the sea a few yards away, by a tiny burn.  There on the sheep-cropped
short grass by the pool was an otter 'playing' and apparently oblivious to our approach.  We froze on the spot and watched
entranced as the otter continued to play for some minutes until suddenly he saw us, and after a few seconds of weighing us up,
he slowly made off into the centre of the pool.

 Creetown Otter

Otters in general are not particularly worried by people, provided the people are not too near them and the otter is in
its natural environment, water, which enables it to make an easyescape if it wishes.

This fact was brought home to me recently when I was driving along the A75, the trunk road to the ferry port of Stranraer.
At a small town called Creetown this road runs alongside the estuary of the River Cree and the main channel runs along this
shore.  The tide was ebbing at a rapid rate at the time I passed and a few yards out from the shore was an otter happily using
the ebbing tide to aid his journey, this whilst cars and heavy lorries plus a couple of walkers proceeded along the main road,
only a short distance from him.

Gleneig Otter

Another good example of otters not being greatly worried by people, in the right circumstances, occurred when we stayed at
Glenuig in N.W. Scotland.  Our evening walk or fishing trip took us, most nights, along the road out of the village; this runs
along the sea edge and on every evening we saw one or sometimes two otters swimming along in the sea a few yards out from the shore.  They were totally unworried by the presence of either us or other people who were present on the shore.

Map to be included later

I have  probably been lucky in so much that on all my trips to N.W. Scotland I have seen otters, except just once, and this was in an area where ottters are actually expected to appear.  We were staying near the village of Glenelg, which is on the
mainland opposite Skye, and from which runs a ferry over to that island.  Those who know Gavin Maxwells's books will probably better know Glenelg as the village near Maxwell's home where he wrote Ring of Bright Water.  On Skye itself, almost opposite the point where the ferry operates from, the Forestry Commission have built a hide; this officially is for people to use to observe the otters which are supposed to visit the area below the hide.  Despite a number of evenings spent fishing into the darkness along this length of coast, we never saw any sign of otters; a consolation was the numerous seal sightings we made. Otters don't appear to order, unfortunately.

Easale Otter

There is no doubt that late evening fishing has enabled me to see many of the otters I have observed.  There was the evening,
on a lonely shingle beach near the village of Easdale south of Oban when, as the strange half light that substitutes for
darkness in June in N.W. Scotland, was arriving, I heard above the calls of the oyster catchers and other birds, the
high-pitched whistle of an otter in my vicinity.  Suddenly there he was, just a few feet away, making his way across the beach
and without apparently even noticing me, he entered the water and was gone.  I have been lucky to see otters in such
circumstances on a number of occasions.

 Mingary Otter

There is, near the village of Kilchoan in N.W. Scotland, a stone jetty at a spot called Mingary; from this jetty in summer a
ferry crosses to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.  This jetty has a nice bright light on its end which appears to attract large
numbers of small coalfish after dark.  The jetty provided great fishing for these coalfish on one September holiday in the area.
 In addition to the fishing we also had the pleasure on two occasions of watching an otter swim along the base of the jetty
in the full glare of the light and our stares.  The otter totally ignored the light, the coalfish and us, and disappeared
into the darkness on his journey.

 Island Otter

When we moved to S.W. Scotland we looked forward to seeing at least a few otters, but in fact nearly two years went by without any sighting of them, until on a June evening, whilst fishing from a quiet beach just as it was going dark, an otter ran along the beach in front of us and was gone into the sea.

The only fresh water along this stretch of beach is a small burn that enters the sea near this point, and it is possible
therefore that this otter is the same one that I observed most of last summer in a pool that I fish about four miles away from
where we live.  The burn runs past this pool.  The pool is only about two acres with a small island in the middle, and whenever
I fished there up to darkness, the otter would leave its island retreat about half an hour before darkness, looking for food.
By keeping quiet I was able to observe the otter for some time as he continued with his evening activities and ignore my
presence.

 Carp

However, on one occasion I was fishing in a corner and had just released a small carp when the otter came along under water
about a yard from the bank.  He must have 'smelt' the carp, as he went mad and churned the water up trying to find it (the carp had fled out into the weed).  Having failed the find the fish, he popped his head up out of the water, saw me, and took off for the safety of his island.

 On another pool nearby which I fish, especially in winter, otters often visit, particularly when the rivers are in flood; again they usually come out about a half hour before dark, but sometimes if all is quiet they will come out during the day to look for food and ruin my fishing.  In fact, whilst otters are usually considered to be animals that prefer their own company, I have on a number of occasions seen two adults together, fishing or playing.
 
Otter eating a Lumpsucker, Cyclopterus lumpus, on the Isle of Mull.

Photograph by Nic Davies (Splashdown Direct.com

Otter (Photograph by Nic Davies)

Otters are beautiful and interesting animals and, whilst they are protected, there are still those who will, given the chance,
kill them.  Unfortunately it is very difficult to obtain concrete evidence of their killing.  I hope that if you are visiting Scotland and have never seen an otter I may have given some pointers to when and where to look.

Otters on Skye (brief)

Otters on Natural World (8 October 2000)

Otters Eating Pipefish (on the Isle of Mull)


British Marine Life Study Society Home Page
Homepage
Index
News 2013
News 2014
Main Links
Membership Form
Top of the Page

Shoreham Wildlife Page