Friday, 5 April 2013

Return of the otter

Water is often the focal point of a landscape and the two rivers that meander their way into the Breckland town of Thetford are a case in point. Once an important crossing point, the area around Nuns Bridges has again brought people from great distances to interact with the river and its environs. Initial interest from beyond the local naturalists and birdwatchers, who keep a regular beat along the river’s margins, was down to the arrival of a black-bellied dipper. This small bird, a vagrant from the continent, had chosen to winter here, feeding from the river and the network of streams that work its margins. It was an unusual visitor and ‘wanted’ for many a bird-lister’s notebook.

Soon, however, visiting birdwatchers encountered the local otters and discovered just how approachable these normally shy creatures are along this section of river. As the weeks have passed so the number of otter watchers has increased, an army of green and camouflage with long-lenses on their cameras and a glint of expectation in their eyes. By and large the otters seem oblivious to this new found audience and they regularly ‘perform’ by fishing, porpoising, play-fighting or by lumbering out onto the bank for a closer look at the growing crowds. Some days I am confronted by the comical sight of a long-lensed cameraman, frustrated by an otter that is too close to his lens to allow him to frame the image properly.

As someone who walks to and from work along the river I have shared the otters with other regulars, a community with a common love of the river and its inhabitants, and together we have felt the joy of seeing these wonderful creatures reclaim their watery realm. There have been otters on the river here since at least the mid-1990s but it is only recently that their numbers have reached a level where individual animals appear comfortable abroad during daylight hours. The origins of these otters stems from the breeding and release work carried out in earlier decades by the Otter Trust. The success of the Trust’s efforts can be seen in generations of young otters born on this stretch of river over recent years. The population is now self-sustaining and access to clean rivers, rich in favoured prey, has been particularly important in the otter population reaching this point.

The otters are normally seen singly, but sometimes two may be seen together. Larger groups, comprised of a female and her dependent cubs, are a less common sight and I suspect that they are more wary in their interactions with the local human population. The family groups can prove particularly engaging, the playful youngsters often chasing one another from water to bank and back. There are times when the group of young otters are in such fluid motion that it becomes impossible to count the number involved.

The arrival of the otters has not been without its problems. The presence of these predators has been blamed for a decline in fish stocks, even though I am unaware of any monitoring work by which such a statement could be supported. No doubt, the local waterbirds no longer have things all their own way, the return of a native predator will mean the failure of some nesting attempts and the predation of some chicks and adult birds. I have monitored a few failed nesting attempts but it has been impossible to say whether these were the result of the otters or of a dog walked off of the lead. More vocal criticism has come from some local residents, however, whose homes border the river. Treasured koi carp have been taken from ornamental ponds and I’ve also seen images of a chicken being taken from a waterside garden. Of course, the responsibility for these losses lies not with the otters but with the residents who have left fish and livestock unprotected. As a nation we have been spared the shadow of dangerous predators and, without wolves or bears, we have become over-confident in our interactions with the natural world. The return of the otters has, for some people at least, forced them to re-evaluate how they keep and manage their livestock.

The otters have not had things all their own way either and I know of three individuals that have been killed by traffic at locations where the river passes under a road. Efforts could be made to reduce the chances of an otter coming into contact with a car by manipulating the banks of the river as it passes under a bridge, making it less likely that the otter will venture away from the river and onto the road. There is also the problem of some people attempting to feed the otters, often in an attempt to lure them into a position favourable for photography. This is clearly an irresponsible thing to do; the otters are wild creatures and we should avoid blurring the lines by offering food in this manner.

The arrival of the otter watchers has drawn attention to the presence of the otters. I have heard it muttered that we should not be promoting their presence and that it would be better if we left the otters alone. However, the sight of a wild otter can be a powerful force for good, strengthening our bond with the natural world and reinforcing messages about the need to look after our rivers so that they continue to support the diverse communities of animals and plants that are associated with them. Yes, some of the otter watchers have been badly behaved; yes, there may be people who wish the otters harm, but in my experience sharing wildlife in this manner strengthens the community’s support and helps to secure its future survival. Alongside this we need to educate those who view the otters as a threat, so that they understand the responsibility they have to safeguard their livestock, rather than simply blaming the otters for doing what is part of their natural behaviour.

The Thetford otters are unusual in their tolerance of human activity and you only have to see them nonchalantly feeding in front of a crowd gathered outside Argos to appreciate this. Their presence underlines that the river is currently in a healthy state but we need to make sure that it remains this way if we are to retain our otters for future generations. These otters are the true denizens of this river, haunting the hollows that have formed under the exposed root-plates of riverside trees and slipping effortlessly between the worlds of water and land. The late Roger Deakin, describing the otter in his wonderful book Waterlog, wrote of the otter’s “puckish, Dionysian habit” and how it would veil itself from view. While the Thetford otters retain this ability, appearing and disappearing with the slightest of ripples, they have become something else too; they are now the street performers whose ‘street’ is a watery one, cutting through the centre of this small market town to the delight of human observers.

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