Wet enough for otters!
(Click on images to enlarge)
18th February 2012: What a day! Minutes after setting foot on the marsh this morning, heavy freezing rain fell from the heavens and continued to drench me for the next three hours. Eventually the rain stopped and the sun came out. It’s amazing how sunlight can alter a person’s mood. I was at the north end of the marsh, walking along the pipes, and thinking of calling it a day. The warm rays hit my back, the birds began to sing, and the marsh began to brighten up. I too brightened up, turned around and walked south, back along the pipes and deeper into the marsh.
I’m not sure what was responsible, the rain stopping or the appearance of the sun, but woodcock, snipe and jack snipe were launching themselves into the air to avoid being stepped on by me and my wellies. Within a minute or two half a dozen snipe zigzagged away from me, which is something I don’t see too often – a sign that spring is on it’s way. I am rarely able to get images of these birds as they fly, startled, away from me: it all happens so quickly and my reactions are too slow.
For a little over two years I have regularly inspected the small mud beaches and banks of Hoo Brook and the River Stour for otter signs. I have found their paw prints and spraints on many occasions. Earlier this year, I saw my first otter in the River Stour. I heard splashing at around 9 pm on a particularly dark evening. Through my night-vision scope, I saw it playing in the water, throwing an object into the air and diving to retrieve it. Although it felt like I had been watching it for quite a while, it couldn’t have been much more than twenty seconds before it dived for the final time and swam away under water. It was a magical experience, and gave me hope that otters might already be breeding on the marsh. They might have been living in their holts along the marsh section of the Stour for years, without my being aware of it. Occasionally, in the evenings, I have heard otters calling. Today, though, the river and brook mud banks and beaches were too pockmarked by the prolonged heavy rain to reveal any tracks at all.
The European otter (Lutra lutra) is a typical species of the otter subfamily. Brown above and cream below, these are highly adapted, aquatic hunters with long streamlined bodies, rudder-like tails and webbed feet. This otter differs from the North American river otter by its shorter neck, broader visage, the greater space between the ears, and its longer tail. However, the European otter cannot be confused with any other animal. Normally, this species is 57 to 95 cm (23-37 in) long, not counting a tail of 35-45 cm (14-18 in). The otter’s average body weight is 7 to 12 kg (15.4-26.4 lbs), although occasionally a large old male may reach up to 17 kg (37 lbs). The record-sized specimen, reported by a reliable source but not verified, weighed over 24 kg (53 lbs).
Our European otter is one of the largest British carnivores which suffered a national decline and largely disappeared from many areas during the 1950–70s. Their demise coincided with the first widespread use of organochlorine pesticides. Following a population recovery during the late 1980s/early 1990s, largely due to improvements in river water quality, otters are found on the main rivers and tributaries; all canals; and there have been many sighting along the River Stour, but not so many in and around the section that flows through Wilden Marsh, as far as I am aware.
The otter is a European protected species and is afforded protection under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and theConservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.
Otter protection under the above legislation means that it is illegal to:
- Kill, injure or handle an otter.
- Disturb an otter in its place of shelter (holt) or resting.
- Obstruct, damage or destroy the places where otters live.
- Possess, control, transport, sell, exchange or offer for sale/exchange any live or dead otter or any part of an otter.
- Keep otters in captivity.