Guest blog – Otters by Kevin Parr

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Kevin Parr is a writer, angler and amateur naturalist from West Dorset. He is the author of Rivers Run, The Idle Angler and The Twitch (which was this blog’s book of the year in 2014) and writes regularly for a variety of publications including BBC CountryFile Magazine and Fallon’s angler.

 

 

 

 

 

Otters

I had the opportunity to talk to a reasonably large crowd of people in the summer. Pretty much all were non-anglers and most of them stayed until the end. I took questions and knew inevitably what the first one would be. In truth, I welcome it. I find it helps me to understand my own contradictions.

Is fishing cruel?

Yes and no, I answered. I spoke of scientific studies, experiments with bee stings and a lack of nerve endings. I pondered the concept of pain itself and the influences of cold blood. Then I talked about resistance and the fact that a fish wouldn’t pull back if it wasn’t panicked.

And while my answer was decidedly ambiguous, it did give me a chance to explain why I fish. After all, I may not be a person who is particular assertive with his opinions, but I like to believe that I act within balance.

For me, escape and connection are the chief draws of angling. The former point has become less pertinent as my life has simplified, but when I was working long, stressful hours, my need to catch fish (and achieve) was far greater.

The issue of connection is somewhat less tangible, but is probably not dissimilar to flying a kite. The world within the water fascinates me but it is a place where I cannot survive. The only way to connect is through a fishing line, and a first cast is rather like a child clutching the string of a soaring kite. In that moment I am in touch with a different world just as that child might be feeling the sensation of flight.

So it is that the interest I and most anglers have for the sub-surface world throws up the contradiction to which I earlier alluded. How is it that anglers claim to care so much about an animal that they forcibly remove from their environment only to put straight back? It is an undeniable paradox, yet the fact remains that the majority of anglers are passionate about the welfare of fish and the habitat in which they live. And for the most part, anglers are happy to pull in the same direction – content in their (self given) role as guardians of our waterways.

Now and then though, comes along an issue that divides the angling world, and recent rumbles have been caused by otters.

By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The resurgence of the otter has been one of the great conservation success stories of the past fifty years. Having faced the threat of extinction, they now swim in every county, and an added bonus is that they’ve become quite user friendly too. Following the hunting ban in the late 1970’s, otters have adapted their habits. They have less fear of Man and are far more active in daylight. Furthermore they have moved into towns and cities and have become popular sights for thousands of people.

On my local Dorset Stour, I might make half a dozen sightings over the course of an afternoon’s fishing. Most are fleeting – a mid-river roll or telltale trail of bubbles – but all the while that I remain benign so the otters treat me like part of the furniture (this is another reason why I love to fish). In some towns on the Stour, such as Blandford and Wimborne, the otters have become familiar attractions, and offer photo opportunities and extraordinarily confiding views.

The otter renaissance has not been welcomed by all, however. Further downstream some anglers are blaming otters for the decline of large chub and barbel that have been long sought on the lower river.  The impact elsewhere is more marked, with the two largest known barbel in the country having been predated on the Great Ouse and Ivel. Of course, a healthy river will support predators and prey and even on rivers where otters have not previously occurred, a balance will be found in time.

Unfortunately, our rivers are not in the best of health.

Pressures stemming from excess abstraction and intensive agricultural practice have caused fluctuations of nitrate levels which in turn may bring algal bloom and lower oxygen levels. Weed growth is suffering, particularly on chalk streams, leaving less food and shelter for micro-organisms and invertebrate life. The increasing presence of non-native species (the signal crayfish being most prominent) is compounding the issue, while also giving predators such as the otter an alternative food source.

Of course the ecology of a river is always changing, and over time will adjust in accordance with any changes within or around it. Typically however, Man tends to view time only within the boundaries of his own life-span, and will often react to a short term fluctuation with panic rather than measured acceptance.

It isn’t easy for anglers to simply put up and shut up, particularly if they have witnessed a favourite stretch of river lose the character of its fish, and some will struggle to ever accept the presence of otters. For some fishery owners though, there is a more pressing problem. That of the threat to their livelihood.

A typical example was faced by Mark Walsingham, a Marine Biologist and former Head of Rural Surveying at the National Trust. Mark now owns a 17 acre site in the Somerset Levels, where some of the most sought after carp in Britain swim. Some of these fish may be more than forty years old, and anglers come from around the world to fish for them.

Around twenty years ago, with otters beginning to frequent a nearby river, Mark took the decision to fence the whole site in order to protect his stocks. The fence has worked as hoped by keeping otters out of the site, despite other lakes in the area suffering from loss of stock. It has also benefitted other wildlife, with water voles flourishing alongside reed bed specialists such as the Cetti’s warbler and water rail.

One issue still troubled Mark, though. The otter is protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, so should one manage to gain access to the site, he would be powerless to act. A stray branch loosened in a storm or an act of vandalism could leave his livelihood at stake.

Normally when such an issue is identified, any concerned parties mark their ground as far away from one another as possible and dig their heels in. The recent ‘debate’ on the Banning of Driven Grouse Shooting is a case in point. Calls to curb unlawful and unethical practice are ignored for so long that it takes an extreme position just to get a voice heard. And even then the opinion of many is simply swept under a Westminster carpet.

Rather refreshingly however, Mark came together with Dave Webb from the UK Wild Otter Trust and alongside organisations such as the Predation Action Group, Embryo Angling and The Angling Trust the issue was quickly identified and agreed upon. Two years on, and despite having no formal process by which to work, Natural England have now granted the first licences for the live trapping and removal of otters from within fenced fisheries. The traps will be baited with fresh spraints and the otter, once caught, will be released immediately outside the fishery, ensuring it remains on territory and causes no imbalance to local ecology.

A minority of anglers remain unimpressed, but hopefully they will gain a sense of perspective. As with any predator, an otter has a vital and specific role within its environment. Moreover, in a year that has seen such polarisation, to achieve anything resembling common sense is surely to be celebrated.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Likes(60)Dislikes(0)
Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati del.icio.us Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive

Get email notifications of new blog posts

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.


37 Replies to “Guest blog – Otters by Kevin Parr”

  1. Thanks Kevin for that education from the other world of water with your interesting kite flying analogy.
    Here’s to free thinking riverine philosophers angling thoughts alongside free swimming fishing otters.

    Likes(9)Dislikes(0)
  2. Cracking feature Kevin, thanks. Yes I heard about this - live trapping otters from fenced enclosures and moving them, common sense in action. Sadly you're right there are still those who want to kill even eradicate otters and some of the nonsense I've seen, often from people who should know better, has been incredible. My 'favourite', is that once the otters have eaten all the fish they'll start climbing trees and eating the contents of all the birds nests so even our songbirds will be under threat. It's scary how often this piffle turns up. I was predominantly a Scottish coarse angler when I fished and have to say that standards re fish welfare and conservation weren't good, but have definitely improved, although I saw some unpleasant things in England too. On my very first fishing trip my dad's pal who hosted it calmly cut the line with lead shot and I think hook and dropped into the canal much to the horror of my 11 year old self. I also remember the kids who took catapults along with their rods so they could entertain themselves firing at birds between bites. Things are improving though, but there's still some way to go and the angling press and representative organisations need to deal with the failings rather than gloss over them. However, that flaw is hardly limited to angling.

    Likes(9)Dislikes(0)
    1. There are plenty of bad eggs in fishing and I agree, sometimes the angling press doesn't help matters. I suppose they have to tailor to their target audience, but I do find it frustrating that some 'big name' writers will offer opinion without considering the impact that may have.

      Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
      1. The local angling group here regularly hears calls for the culling of otters, and occasionally even ospreys. Last year around this time we had a spate of otter "road kills" which the local river charity (which claims to support environmental issues regarding the river, but is really just a pro-angling pressure group) refused to turn over the corpses when they were handed to them for post-mortem and investigation, and when the question of non-natural deaths were put to them damn near blew a gasket in their rage-denial. Classic overreaction consistent with, well, we all know what it is consistent with. They only stopped (or stopped being found, otter numbers are still low) when the death by roadkill of an albino otter was reported in the local paper. Odd how press attention seemed to almost instantly prevent otter roadkill.

        It seems some "sportsmen" are unable to cope with anything less than a superabundance of prey achievable only through the lack of natural predators, where have we heard that before I wonder? It is hunting, shooting, and fishing, remember.

        Likes(6)Dislikes(6)
        1. Hmmm, a word needed regarding the license for the possession of dead otters and the potential penalties for not having a license?

          Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
  3. Interesting point about the signal crayfish being an alternative food source for otters.

    I spent a lot of time filming otters for my most recent nature documentary and was struck by just how much the otters relied on signal crayfish in their diet. In fact it was rare to see them eating anything else.

    The return of the otter to English rivers and the escape and spread of the farmed signal crayfish seem to have almost identical timelines to the point where you have to wonder, in light of the poor state of our rivers, if otters would have made such a rapid comeback at all without the signal crayfish.

    Likes(10)Dislikes(0)
    1. Stephen - hi! Welcome. And perhaps whether signal crayfish would have spread so successfully had otters been at their 'natural' levels?

      Likes(7)Dislikes(0)
      1. Also would signal crayfish have had such a negative effect if there was more dead wood and weedbeds in our rivers in which inverts could shelter? Many of our rivers are pretty denuded re vegetation and natural underwater dead wood piles.

        Likes(4)Dislikes(0)
      2. From my (albeit limited!) experience it does seem as though individual otters will generally stick to a favoured food source.
        Perhaps if the pattern for crayfish chomping continues then everyone will be happy!

        Likes(5)Dislikes(0)
  4. Thanks Kevin for a really interesting article. I've always found it difficult to understand the attraction of fishing. I recently read Life in a Chalk Stream by Simon Cooper which helped me see the attraction a bit more clearly. This article has added to that. I still think that otters are more important than anglers, whatever the economics, and hope you have success persuading people of their importance.

    Likes(3)Dislikes(0)
    1. Thank you Paul. It worries me that anglers might marginalize themselves with an all out war on the otter. The vast majority of the non-fishing public would share your view - quite rightly to be honest.
      I have always been proud of the ways in which attitudes in angling have evolved. Outdated practices quickly become frowned upon and then rejected from within the angling fraternity - perhaps one reason why the general public are more accepting of angling than other country pursuits.

      Likes(2)Dislikes(0)
      1. I'm sorry to say that the enlightened angler is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. They are just as full now of the angry puppy anti-government anti-environment sentiment as the shooting lobby. I mentioned upthread that the local angling group regularly hears calls for culling of otters, and occasionally ospreys, but there are also a couple of regulars in it who openly brag about using genuine leadshot weights too. For no other reason than it lets them thumb their nose at authority and environmentalists. One of them is a water bailiff.

        I'm afraid anglers need to put their foot back to the pedal if they want to retain the image of being the enlightened sportsman (although, I'd say all the environmental lobby need to do this, there is a horrid tendency to sit on our laurels when we win something instead of ensuring it sticks), and maybe publicly disassociate themselves from the rest of the field sports lobby.

        Likes(6)Dislikes(5)
        1. There will always be a minority in any walk of life who enjoy raising two fingers to the 'establishment'. The difference today is perhaps that there is a larger platform on which to offer such views.

          Unfortunately, two many issues are reduced into black and white, when in truth there is an awful lot of grey. There are plenty of enlightened sportspeople across all field sports, it's just that sometimes they get drowned out by the noise of the less pragmatic. It is far easier to shout a single argument repeatedly and get heard, then try and present the realistic perspective which takes time and words.

          As for the chap using lead shot, feel free to tip off the Environment Agency. If he gets caught 'in possession' then he won't be thumbing his nose again in a hurry.

          Likes(9)Dislikes(1)
          1. A minority whom the "silent majority" do nothing to put down or eject is the majority by tacit support. If the non-rotten apples in the barrel do nothing to eject the rotten ones, then they soon get corrupted too. The whole barrel is lost.

            If the enlightened anglers do not force out those who stick two fingers up, and do nothing to dissociate from the corrupt from top to bottom shooting and hunting lobbies, then they are just as bad and will continue to be lumped in with them and take the same lumps. Same with those supposed enlightened shooters, they either speak up and put down the ones who kill wildlife or accept they are fine and okay with it and take the same consequences.

            Likes(3)Dislikes(9)
  5. A very erudite blog Kevin. I have friends and acquaintances who fish or know people who fish and manage water on behalf of the River Ure Salmon trust. Generally the Otter is disliked and a number of waters are fenced against them, fine in moderation. However when the fenced water is in the middle of a chain of waters providing a link from one river catchment to another for Otters it may have consequences we are not yet aware of. The salmon trust are dreadful with persistent rumor that their part time bailiffs kill, Otters, Goosanders, Herons and Cormorants as and when. Yet all are more likely to eat the Salmons enemies and predators the Eel and Brown Trout than effect Salmon numbers, even Ospreys are disliked to the point they refused to be part of a scheme to put up artificial nests for Osprey along the Ure.
    Of course fencing one water may result in a heavier predation level at the nearest unfenced water, there is much about the resurgent Otter we need to discover.
    One thing that did gall locally was NE allowing the stocking of Carp in a water in a SSSI and then allowing the club to fence out the native Otter, ludicrous on a SSSI.
    For my part as a fisherman who rarely fishes these days I am hugely pleased to see Otters and the fish they eat.

    Likes(9)Dislikes(0)
    1. I'm not sure how you fence an otter put of a river? Are you sure you are not confusing otter fencing with standard livestock fencing which allows riverside habitat to improve, increasing numbers of eels, trout and salmon?

      Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
      1. For now, no efforts are being made to fence off rivers.

        Stillwaters are being fenced, and to be 'otter proof' and sunk below ground and completely encircle a lake.

        Likes(2)Dislikes(1)
    2. Thank you Paul - and good points all.

      I'm sure there is plenty of unofficial predator management going on out there, which, aside from the legal, moral and ecological issues, won't do much for public relations.

      Likes(4)Dislikes(0)
  6. I didn't understand why fencing
    'also benefited other wildlife, with water voles flourishing alongside reed bed specialists such as the Cetti’s Warbler and Water Rail.'
    Presumably Otters predate Water Voles (?) but i don't get the connection to reed-bed specialist species.

    Likes(2)Dislikes(0)
    1. Sorry - I should have clarified that point.

      The fencing kept out other predators, particularly mink which were widespread in the area (but have likely been nudged out by the otters). This gave greater protection to the water voles and reed bed birds. Mink will predate water voles and are pretty nifty nest thieves too - I think it was their exclusion that aided other species more than that of the otter.

      As an aside, I have wondered about the potential impact that fencing may have in restricting access to deer, and other larger mammals, to a water source. In most situations, such as the one mentioned, this wouldn't be a problem but it could be an issue in certain locations.

      Likes(4)Dislikes(0)
    2. Probably keeps out local livestock too. Bank erosion by cattle and sheep do one hell of a number on bank and aquatic wildlife.

      Likes(4)Dislikes(5)
  7. I note that some in the angling world quickly made the connection between NE granting a license to kill buzzards to protect pheasant stocks and possibly seeking a license to kill predators of commercially valuable fish stocks, eg. http://www.anglersmail.co.uk/news/can-fisheries-shoot-otters-legally-59925

    Likes(4)Dislikes(0)
  8. May be few on here know about he territorial actions of dog Otters. I was once called to an Otter in distress. The animal was walking around in the open in a field. I managed to catch the animal and take it to a vet. At first I thought dogs had been turned onto the animal but later research was that the damage had been done by another dog Otter. The testicles of the injured animal had been bittern! What away to stop another male interfering with your territory! Sadly the animal was so weak that it had to be put to sleep. May be a few fishermen could have the same done to them for messing up the wildlife like adding Ruffe into waters which then eat the eggs of trout, char and salmon!

    Likes(6)Dislikes(4)
  9. Kevin, thanks for not only writing the post in the first place but for also taking the time to patiently reply to all the comments that it generated. Nothing more to add than that, just tipping the cap and saying thanks for a thoughtful bit of dialogue.

    Likes(3)Dislikes(0)
  10. I used to fish many years ago, I even fished at national level for a successful team. However I had a change of heart and could now never partake in something which is clearly painful (in my mind) and stressful for the quarry. Having said that I still maintain an interest in the wildlife of our waterways and I'm pleased to see the resurgence of the Otter as a species. It would also pains me hugely when anglers would call for culls and complain of fish stock loss.

    You mentioned the loss of a large Barbel from the River Ivel and there was a significant discussion about this at the time. I live 5 minutes walk from the river and know it like the back of my hand and have seen it changed hugely over the years but one thing always annoyed me about the loss of this fish.

    Firstly Barbel were never native to the river. They were stocked by the EA if memory serves me rightly back in the 80's. The Ivel was always a clean, quite fast flowing river full of Dace and Roach and even the odd Trout. Over the years these species died out for various reasons, the river slowed and the Chub and Barbel took over, growing large and fat on high protein baits and crayfish. The fish which grew so large (easy prey for Otters) had done so artificially largely due to the effects of man, those fish should never have existed in the first place.

    I welcome the initiative regarding the trapping and removal of Otters as a solution to predation in enclosed waters however one has to first look closer to home and understand that artificially grown and oversized fish are not naturally evolved to be able to survive in the face of predators of this type and any true ecosystem will find a balance of predator and prey. Modern fisheries, while having many side benefits for wildlife in general are man made to provide the best sport for anglers and until angling as a whole accepts there will be losses to all predators and learns to live with this then there will always be conflict.

    Likes(4)Dislikes(0)
  11. Very good point. The outsize fish have proved easy pickings for otters, and as you say, in a more natural ecology they would not have ever reached that size.

    On the flipside, anglers may argue that if the otters have been absent for a period of time then at what point does that natural balance shift? While on a more personal level, it is undeniably upsetting for an angler (despite the obvious contradiction!) to witness the demise of fish that they have come to cherish - only to be told that the result is a more natural balance.

    I am not arguing your point for one moment, just offering another perspective.

    Likes(0)Dislikes(0)
    1. It's a fair comment. Personally I'd love to see rivers like the Ivel back to where they were many years ago. Full of small silver fish with the odd bigger chub and an ecosystem which includes and supports the native predators.

      Man seems to have an issue with predators on the whole. We've pretty much exterminated them all so any recovery is to be applauded. I long for the day where Lynx are back in our woodland, raptors can exist unmolested and foxes don't have to run for their lives every time the hunts go out.

      I believe that if Angling is to survive it should distance itself from hunting and shooting side of things and get on board with the environmental potential which fisheries can provide.

      Likes(3)Dislikes(0)
      1. You and I have similar dreams....

        I find the lack of understanding and subsequent demonisation of predator species one of the most infuriating aspects of our natural landscape and those people living in it.

        Away from any other argument is the simple question of morality - who has the 'right' to decide what animal should live at the expense of another?

        Likes(1)Dislikes(0)
  12. Recent neurobiological research suggests that bony fish do indeed feel pain that meets the criteria generally applied to mammals and ourselves. Anyone interested should look at this review: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/jexbio/218/7/967.full.pdf

    With every year that passes new research shows that the gap between humans and other animals is narrower in all sorts of respects than we used to (conveniently) believe.
    I used to be a keen fisherman many years ago, back in the days of such delightful practices as livebaiting. My only defense is that in those days my elders all told me that fish could not feel pain and most of the research to the contrary had not been performed. However, I'm not suggesting that we should mount an all-out campaign against angling!

    Likes(1)Dislikes(1)
    1. I've only scanned it, but that is an interesting paper that I will enjoy reading. Thank you.

      One point I noticed is the theory that fish do not feed if they are experiencing pain. I do not doubt that, but the point at which the urge to feed overcomes the feeling of pain is likely far quicker than we might imagine. I mention this because of the speed at which I have recaptured the same fish in the past. I have caught the same fish within minutes of returning it to the water, and 'known' fish are caught dozens of times at ever increasing size and condition with no apparent side effects.

      I'm not looking to argue against the evidence of the paper or your own opinion (believe me, this is an endless conundrum in my mind!), but merely sharing my own thoughts and observations.

      Likes(3)Dislikes(0)
      1. Thanks, Kevin. Just a couple of points.
        It's important for organisms to be able to overcome pain, at least up to a certain level. A lioness may press home her attack on a zebra despite a painful kick, and human walkers don't always give up their journey at the first painful blister. As you say, actions result from the interplay of multiple drivers, of which pain may be only one. That doesn't mean blisters don't hurt!
        The science seems pretty compelling that fish feel pain, but it's not necessarily definitive. However, I think our first assumption should be that most animals with well-developed sensory and nervous systems (as fish have) will have a sense of pain. The evolutionary benefit from having the ability to detect and take steps to avoid potentially damaging stimuli just seems overwhelming. The extent to which pain drives behaviour is likely to vary widely among different animals; it may well be less important in fish than in some other groups.
        I think our decisions should be informed by the best evidence available, and that we should be honest with ourselves when we make them. However, everyone has different priorities, and I'm all too well aware that most of my own decision-making would not stand up to ethical scrutiny!

        Likes(1)Dislikes(1)
  13. Sorry for being late to the article. I'm an ex-angler. The one thing that I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned more is the decline of the Eel. It was my understanding that Eels used to be the most common prey item of Otters, and Eels used to be incredibly abundant in most rivers and streams, along with still waters. With the shocking decline in Eels it must have meant that Otters have had to switch to other prey.

    I have to admit I have been shocked by the attitude of some anglers to Otters. Back in the days when I used to fish many anglers, including if I remember rightly the late great Richard Walker used to lament the decline of Otters. In fact if I remember rightly he used to argue that Otters were not a threat to fisheries because they fed so much on Eels.

    Likes(1)Dislikes(0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.