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Yorkshire's otters

Thursday 25th August 2011

Otters sleeping - Credit Carl Watts

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has been working across the county to create havens for otters, re-establishing populations in areas that had previously seen dramatic declines in this charismatic animal.

Once commonly found in Britain otters virtually disappeared from our rivers in the 1950s. This was as a result of increased pesticide use which was running off into our rivers and polluting our water sources. Otters are at the top of the river food chain in the UK therefore these pesticides accumulated in their bodies. Hunting was also to blame for the decline in otters; however this was later banned in 1978 when otter numbers were reaching critical levels. Otters are also currently protected by the Wildlife and Countryside (1981) Act preventing intentional destruction, injury, disturbance or their sale. Whilst we still receive news of otter deaths these have mostly been caused in road traffic accidents. In these cases the bodies are sent to South Wales for autopsy which provides us with detailed information on their condition and lifestyle that we previously would not have known.

Don Vine, Conservation Officer said:

“The picture for the whole of Yorkshire is very optimistic. Otters are returning naturally to a lot of our watercourses and work by conservation organisations like Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is improving habitats, raising awareness and setting in place surveying that gives us a more accurate overall picture of what is happening on the ground. On my own patch, the Middle and Upper Aire signs are very encouraging with sightings in unlikely places like the Dark Arches under Leeds City Station.”

Thanks to funding from SITA Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has been able to enhance the otter’s habitat on Yorkshire’s riverbanks.  Work has included creating further wetland sites, planting shrubs to provide otters with areas to ‘lie up’ and hide safely for the day, constructing otter platforms and installing artificial holts along river banks.  Increased interest from landowners to get involved with our water for wildlife projects have meant that we have been able to improve a great many habitats, with around 20 holts being built on the River Aire alone in the last three years.Signs have been encouraging on these sites with sightings of otters in unlikely places including the Dark Arches under Leeds city rail station. On the River Hull the otter population is showing signs of recovery from a critically low population in the 1970’s following the creation of new wetland habitats and the restoration of existing wetland. Whereas on the River Wiske near Northallerton two otters were seen playing close to one of the artificial holts the Trust has installed. In West Yorkshire there has been evidence of otters for at least nine years on the Calder through Wakefield. The population here remains stable although there is no confirmed evidence of breeding. Along the River Calder SITA helped fund large scale habitat work including the building of new scrapes and planting of scrub cover. Although in small numbers there is now evidence of otters along the whole of the River Calder.

Volunteers in Yorkshire have also been trained up to carry out otter surveys, the results of which are all sent to local data centres. The results of these surveys have been very positive, enabling us to begin to construct a pattern of otter activity across the county.

Work however must still continue as it is easier to get an individual otter back in an area they were previously found, but a much larger challenge to move breeding pairs in. A female otter with cubs require far more food in a smaller area than a male that is more mobile and therefore not as affected by disturbance.

Otters require clean rivers with bank side vegetation to create their holts, plus a varied food supply. Projects such as those led by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have been integral in providing these suitable habitats for the beloved star of the autobiography ‘Ring of Bright Water’ by Gavin Maxwell. By continuing with our work we hope that Yorkshire’s otter population grows stronger and stronger.

If you see an otter please get in touch!

Tagged with: Otters