By Peter Frost in England:
The otter‘s welcome return
Saturday 5th April 2014
The tiny electric launch, the Electric Eel moved silently away from the jetty at How Hill on the river Ant in the heart of the Norfolk Broads National Park. We soon left the main river taking a tiny reed-fringed backwater.
The park ranger spotted it first – they always do – something slender, sleek and shiny swimming across the river. First guess was a mink, common enough to be a real pest in these waters.
It moved fast and looked bigger than a mink. As it scrambled on to the bank the whiskers and bright button nose made it plain this was that rarest of Broadland’s mammals – the wonderful otter (Lutra lutra).
After years of living on the brink of extinction in Britain, otters have made a dramatic comeback, and not just in the Broads.
Back in the 1970s, otters were nearly extinct. They have made an extraordinary comeback – and one linked to other improvements in our rivers, streams, canals and other water courses.
Otters are playful and affectionate with their young, they float on their backs with pups on their stomachs. You may be lucky and see one sitting on the river bank meticulously eating a fish. A large dog otter or a pregnant female might eat as much as four pounds (2kg) of fish a day.
Maxwell’s book, first published in 1960, was made into a popular film in 1969 when otters had almost disappeared from both English and Welsh rivers and were quite rare in the Scottish rivers where Maxwell had set his book and film. The film and book helped to win over public opinion in favour of the otter.
At this time the few surviving otters were still being hunted with packs of hounds. The murderous so-called sport was not made illegal until 1978.
Another major factor in the otters’ decline was the widespread use of DDT and other agricultural chemicals. They drained from farmland and poisoned waterways.
Those chemicals accumulated in fish and amphibians and poisoned the otter at the top of the riverbank food chain.
These chemicals, along with untreated sewage and industrial pollution, effectively killed our rivers.
The rivers too were being dredged and straightened, while banks were being tidied up and steel and concrete pilings were installed, replacing the soft otter-friendly reed fringes. It is hard to dig a holt in a concrete bank.
Those of us who wanted to see British otters had to journey north to Orkney, Shetland or the Highlands.
Banning DDT and the gradual improvement in river water quality started to make the news, although it was usually the return of fisherman’s salmon that made the headlines. But as the salmon returned, so did the otter.
Today even lucky city folk might see an otter on a early morning canal towpath walk.
European mink in the Netherlands: here.