Saturday, January 22, 2022
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Otter spotters

Notes from the Sticks: Otter spotters

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THERE’S been some quiet excitement among the walking fraternity in the village recently because there are otters in the Ribble. They are thought to live under a pump house on the bank which serves the nearby limestone quarry for the cement works. Here is a video from last year.

I have not seen any on the river yet, but a few summers ago when the stream at the back of our house was running very high, Alan and I were looking out of the window and saw what I thought at first were two dogs in the water. We realised almost at once that it was a pair of otters. They quickly disappeared downstream, one of them doing a victory roll on the way. It was a very exciting moment.

The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) is widely distributed across Europe, Asia and into North Africa but it has had a hard time of it in Britain for many decades. Numbers crashed from the late 1950s as a result of a combination of factors. Farmers began to use organochlorine pesticides on fields which washed into rivers and killed the otters or affected their breeding and immunity to disease. Other pollutants such as herbicides, fertilisers, farm slurry, industrial effluent and sewage added to the problem, while some farming methods destroyed riverside habitat. It was also legal to hunt them with dogs. Otterhounds were bred for the purpose and are still kept as pets, though they are now rare.  

In January 1978, when the otter had disappeared from most parts of the country, it was given legal protection. Hunting had already almost ceased, and many of the remaining hounds were switched to hunting mink.

Now organochlorine pesticides are banned and freshwater pollution has been reduced. Conservationists have encouraged landowners to manage their land with otters in mind and have organised the protection of stretches of well-wooded riverbanks. Charities have bred otters and reintroduced them into areas where they had been wiped out, and they are now present in every county in England.  

However the presence of otters is not a cause for unalloyed joy. They are members of the mustelid family which includes weasels, stoats, badgers and mink. These mammals are voracious eaters and the otter is no exception. Its diet is nearly all fish, and often only a portion is taken. A half-eaten salmon was found recently on our river bank. Here is a distressing video taken last year showing otter predation of barbel. I think it was taken in the next village to ours.

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I mentioned mink above, and I wrote about them here. I have never seen a live one, but last week I found a dead one at the roadside. They were introduced to this country courtesy of the fur industry, which allowed some to escape, and animal rights campaigners, who released thousands of them to cause havoc in the native animal population. They will eat almost anything they can catch including rabbits, small mammals, chickens, ducks, moorhens, fish, frogs and invertebrates. They have very nearly wiped out water voles (Arvicola amphibius, Ratty in Wind in the Willows).

I was only sorry there weren’t two of them, so that I could have had a pair of luxe mittens.

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In October I wrote about my concern that there is a disastrous fall in the numbers of birds and insects in our area of Lancashire, and several comments echoed this. As a result our reader ‘linuslimmy’ has very generously offered to collate anecdotal evidence about bird and insect numbers, either increases or decreases (or even static). If we get enough entries we may be able to see some sort of national picture. Send your comments and observations to this address: missingcritters@yahoo.com

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Finally, some late news: the Clitheroe Young Farmers Club held a festive tractor rally a few days before Christmas in aid of charity. I filmed the event from my front doorstep but I had to wait for my son to visit to get it edited down. There must have been a couple of hundred tractors – I had no idea there were so many around, or that there were so many ways to dress one up. It was great to see young folk – and some not so young – enjoying themselves on a freezing evening without needing a screen.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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