Tuesday, 13 November 2012

An Otter Blog

I promised that I would write a blog about the otters and fisheries conference I went to in Edinburgh, but as I haven’t said anything about otters here before I thought I would start at the beginning.

I have an early memory of my father, who is a keen trout fisherman, showing me an otter kill at the side of a reservoir.  It made a great impression on me, so I must have realised at the time it was something very special (this would have been in the mid to late 60’s when otters were in serious decline).

 As a teenager my fascination grew, I read ‘Ring of Bright Water’ by Gavin Maxwell and then went on to read his other books as well.  I have always been interested in wildlife of all kinds, but never expected to see an otter until I visited Shetland with David, my husband, in the early years of our marriage.  Everyone said they were about, and told us where to see them, but despite walking the shores of the sea loch near our cottage every evening we never came across one.  To be honest, I didn’t have a clue about how to find them or what signs to look out for; I like to think I would be luckier now.

About 15 years, and two children later, on the evening of 24th May 2005, David came home with a very expensive bat detector. I wasn't best pleased but I decided there wasn't much point in making a fuss (I'm very glad now that I didn't).  We rounded up the children and went the local lake to try it out. 

Backwell Lake

 Backwell Lake is next to a busy road near Nailsea and Backwell Railway Station.  It's well used by dog walkers and there are a lot of well fed ducks and swans.  It's also home to six species of bats.  We walked to the bridge at the end of the lake opposite the car park and stood there waiting for the ‘Daubies’ to skim the surface of the lake in their search for insects.  We hadn't been there for more than a couple of minutes when a broad head popped out of the water about 10 metres away from us.  I went through a mental check list. 
‘It’s an otter’, I said calmly, then, as realisation swept over me ‘bloody hell, it’s an otter!!!’  
Almost immediately it headed towards the reeds at the edge of the lake and porpoised silently under the water.  My last impression was the arch of a back and the broad base of a tail.  When we realised it wasn't going to re-appear, we turned round and looked at the stream flowing into the lake.  There was a trail of mud stirred up from the bottom showing where the otter has swum right under the bridge while we had been standing there.

I had absolutely no idea that there were otters in North Somerset, let alone on a lake so close to a town.  Apparently neither had anyone else, no-one would believe me!  Eventually I was put in touch with James Field of The Avon Wildlife Trust.  He told me that Wessex Water workers regularly saw otters on the lake when they made early morning visits, and asked if I would like to join the North Somerset Otter Group.

I trained as an otter surveyor and surveyed a small brook on Nailsea Moor for several years.   I chose it because it was within walking distance of home. I couldn’t believe that such a small stream could support an otter but I found spraint on my first visit.  I grew to love surveying my patch and was over the moon when, on one occasion, I found clear mother and cub footprints under one of the bridges. 

My favourite bridge

Otter Spraint on a Ledge - textbook!

Eventually I volunteered to help co-ordinate the otter group, which was part of the North Somerset Levels and Moors Project.  In 2010, when the funding for the project dried up Kiri, my co-worker, and I decided to try to run the group independently.  It wasn’t easy on our own, but eventually YACWAG, a local wildlife organisation with several reserves near Yatton and Congresbury offered to take us under their wing.

We decided to re-launch as the YACWAG Otter Group.  James Williams from The Somerset Otter Group kindly agreed to speak at our first meeting and over 100 people came.  Forty signed up as surveyors and we ran a series of training events.

First Survey Training Session - Photo Sarah Pitt

We now carry out monthly surveys and cover most of the sites originally surveyed by the North Somerset Otter Group, as well as some new areas.   There are several still water fisheries within our ‘patch’ and it wasn’t long before we became aware that the return of the otter was not without it's problems.  That's why, on Wednesday, Kiri and I found ourselves at the IOSF Otters and Fisheries Conference in Edinburgh. 

Otter Footprint clearly showing five toes, webbing and claws