19th February 2012: Having established that at least one otter is active along the marsh section of the River Stour, and because of its protected status, it is sensible to minimise disturbance close to the river during marsh workdays. I think, though, we would need to be cutting trees down along the river bank, or at the edge of the wood bordering the corridor to the tenant farmer’s field, or interfering with brash piles in the area of the corridor, before there would be any risk of disturbing otters that “might” be in residence close by.
Otters will set up home in a quiet, secluded place close to water; in a pipe or hole, perhaps; under a brash pile, maybe; or along the banks of rivers and streams, and close to a lake or pond. Often, the holt is screened by tree roots, or something else that will help obscure the entrance. An otter does not always live below ground; it will sometimes rest above ground on a “couch.” A “couch” can be flattened vegetation, or a lie-up under a brash pile or under fallen logs.
75% to 95% of a freshwater otter’s diet is fish – any fish, I don’t think it has a preference. Otters will, if necessary, eat frogs, ground-nesting birds, beetles and ducks, as part of its 1.5 kilo daily food requirement. Small fish are eaten in the water, and large prey is dragged onto dry ground and eaten. Otters are mainly nocturnal animals. In quiet and undisturbed areas, they are active during the day.
The recent otter activity on the marsh could all be down to a transient, or a succession of transients, but it might signify the presence of breeding bitch. It could be that the marsh is a small part of a dog otter’s home range, which might encompass 40 kilometres of waterway, and he could have a number of holts and couches within his territory. Females have smaller home ranges.
Male and female otters usually only come together to mate. One of the signs that mating might be occurring within an area, is the discovery of spraints in prominent places like on rocks, logs and fallen branches, and on grassy mounds. These spraints mark the otter’s territory. Otter spraints are black when fresh and sweet smelling – a little like lavender. Mink spraints smell horrible. I regularly find otter and mink spraints along the large water pipes, and around North Pond.
The male otter plays no part in rearing of cubs and is driven from the holt, by the female, before the young are born.
Otters breed all year round. With a gestation period of 63 days, the bitch will give birth to two or three toothless and blind cubs. These will remain helpless for up to six weeks and will not be allowed in the water before they are three to four months old. They will stay with their mother for up to a year.
So, the possible presence of breeding pair of otters on the marsh is added to my list of things to look out for and to confirm, if possible.
(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.
15th February 2012: Wilden Marsh is fortunate in that it has a long-established badger population. Badgers and their setts (the holes in which they live) are protected by law under the Badgers Act 1992. Badgers have full legal protection from deliberate injury or maltreatment under the 1985 amendment to the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Anyone found close to a badger’s sett may now have to prove that they are not engaged in badger digging activities.
At this time the year, when most of the vegetation has died away, access to the marsh badgers’ setts, by unauthorised people and dogs, is all too easy. I check the areas around the setts regularly to satisfy myself that things are as they should be and that the badgers are not being interfered with. This I do slowly and quietly, the way I do most things around the marsh, minimising disturbance to the animals and taking the time to look closely at the ground signs. What I am looking for is footprints, whether these belong to humans or animals. I rarely find human footprints near the setts, but I do find domesticated dog prints. These are likely to be the prints of unleashed dogs that are on their way to, or returning from being walked in the lagoon fields. What some ill-informed dog owners can fail to realise is that it is a criminal offense not to have a dog or dogs under close control, or on a lead, in a field or enclosure containing livestock. Badgers roam all over the lagoon field, and the marsh cattle are next to it. A dog does not have to chase the animals to cause an offence, and it could be shot if it is thought to be threatening them. Dog waste is also a problem and a health hazard!
It can be something unusual in an area 100 meters from setts that will attract my attention: digging, damaged or flattened vegetation, rubbish that I have not noticed before, or some other item such as a plastic bottle, a carrier bag or a food container. In fact, anything indicating that someone or something might have wandered too close to the setts will warrant further investigation. I have stumbled upon badger baiters in Hoo Wood and worry that they might turn their attentions to the marsh badgers.
Intra-red cameras are extremely useful when I need reassurance; they are quickly and easily hidden, and are very effective tools.
It is not a practical proposition to give the marsh badgers 100% protection. We can only keep a general eye on the area in which they live, to an extent that we are not inhibiting their day to-day activities.
To find out more about badger protection law, go here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1992/51/contents
12th February 2012: The marsh foxes are getting the better of me. I watched the dog fox early this morning, from Hoo Wood, through binoculars, mooching about in the north pasture. He paid no attention to the cattle. He sniffed around a small brash pile that had, or has something living under it; maybe it’s one of his old above ground dens. I have looked down so many holes lately that I am imagining him watching me from somewhere nearby, sniggered knowingly under his breath. There’s more to these foxes than I give them credit for. They are not called wily old foxes for nothing! You only have to watch them collaborate to trap and kill pheasants to know that they are a lot smarter than your average pooch.
My remote cameras snapped a fox, a household cat and a muntjac, scratching about outside the badger setts last night. What do these animals find so attractive about badgers…?
11th February 2012: What a brilliant day it’s been. The temperature was minus 5 degrees centigrade first thing this morning. The sky remained cloudless all day, and the temperature this afternoon was probably not above freezing.
It’s good to have firm ground under foot for a change.
Today was taken up with the usual five-hour walk through the north to south marshes and back again.
Most of the snow has melted, but there are enough patches of imprinted snow close to the river to prove that an otter/otters have recently been on the north and south ends of the marsh. There is also an area of frozen standing water with otter prints in the ice.
I checked on all the high ground at the north end of the marsh for conclusive evidence of this year’s fox den, but found none. I even gave close attention to last year’s foxes’ summer den, but there were no signs of recent activity here. There were many fox prints around the badgers’ setts, though.
On the way home, I set up two remote cameras at likely locations in the hope that they might show something that will help my fox den search.
There are 27 images in this slideshow.