European Otter (Lutra lutra)
A few decades ago, this iconic member of the Mustelid family (which also includes badgers, stoats and polecats) was in the throws of a calamitous decline across much of its range. Since then, it has steadily rebounded from its Marches stronghold, reflecting a wider improvement in the water quality of our rivers. Happily, the east Shropshire moorlands are part of that success story, and Otters are now present across the Weald Moors once again.
In the Field: feeding on a wide variety of fish of all shapes and sizes (from eel to minnow) it will come as no surprise at all to discover Otters are chiefly riverbank dwellers. However, they will exploit virtually every type of waterway in search of food, right down to ditch level, and range over a wide area to do so (sometimes beyond ten miles of river habitat). In wetland areas, amphibians are also an important source of sustenance, with seasonal spring frog high on any self–respecting Otter’s menu!
While elusive and enigmatic, Otters often leave a range of visible field signs — a marked difference from their smaller relative the Polecat. Among the most prominent are the spraints (a more refined way of saying ‘poo’!) they deposit at the edges of their territories. If you find an example and are willing to give it a sniff, these suspect little tar-black packages (which turn a distinguished shade of grey in older age!) are said to be strongly redolent of Parma Violet sweets. Otters are most active at dusk and during the night and spent their days resting-up in holts. The root systems of trees on sloping wooded banks are popular locations (especially within stands of Ash and Sycamore) but riverbank holes and drains may also be utilised for the purpose. Near to water, areas of flattened vegetation (among bramble scrub or reeds, for example) may also indicate the presence of another type of Otter ‘daytime chill-out zone’ known, somewhat appropriately, as a couch!
Otter numbers in the UK have been steadily increasing since the 1980s. Before then, however, the Marches of west Wales were one of the few areas where signs of activity were still regularly found, making their migration eastwards into Shropshire that much easier to explain. Otter cubs can remain with their parents for up to twelve months, so adults often breed only once every other year. Consequently, the pace of recolonisation from the Marches to the east Midlands is slow, with research suggesting at least 14 years are required to cover a distance of some 30 miles in range.
Our great thanks go to Tim Preston for allowing us to reproduce his stunning images of Shropshire Otter