Otters are back – in every county in England

return of the otterIt has been a long and perilous journey, but otters have finally managed to swim back from the brink of extinction and into every county in England.

Two otters have been spotted building their holts on the banks of the rivers Medway and Eden in Kent, delighting conservationists who had previously predicted they would not return to the county for another 10 years.

"The fact that otters are now returning to Kent is the final piece in the jigsaw Eurasia otterfor otter recovery in England and is a symbol of great success for everybody involved in otter conservation," said Alastair Driver, the national conservation manager for the Environment Agency.

Otters have reappeared in places where they have not been seen since the industrial revolution, including Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester, and even on the Thames and the Lea in north London. A recent survey on the river Ribble, in Lancashire, showed a 44% increase in otter numbers since 2008.

The Kentish otters herald a remarkable – if slow – renaissance for the sleek, fish-devouring member of the mustelid family, otter comebackwhich declined by 95% of its range in western Europe during the 20th century.

The otter's return represents a happy ending to one of the worst episodes in modern British wildlife history: the sudden disappearance of one of a most widespread and charismatic mammals.

The process began around 1956 and was almost certainly caused by the introduction of powerful organochlorine pesticides such as aldrin and dieldrin. Residues of these chemicals were washed into the rivers where otters lived, poisoning them.

Despite the banning of organochlorine pesticides in the otter comebackmid-Sixties, otters continued to decline, and their population reached a low point by the end of the 1970s, when they had effectively vanished from everywhere except the West Country and parts of Northern England (although good numbers remained in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland). The otter was considered extinct in Great Britain at that time 30 years ago. With their remarkable comeback though, the otter population once numbered in the hundreds has now grown to thousands.

The first national otter survey, carried out between 1977 and 1979, ottersdetected the presence of otters in just over 5 per cent of the 2,940 sites surveyed; all the sites were known to have held the animals previously.(At left: otter facts & comparison of otter population numbers. Click on image for larger image. Credit: The Telegraph)

After otter hunting was belatedly banned in Britain in 1978, numbers began to increase – particularly following the withdrawal of foodchainorganochlorine chemicals, a status for the otter of protected species, and a more general improvement in water quality, leading to more fish in rivers and lakes. Now, the otters are back from the brink of extinction thanks to this clean-up that has left the country’s waterways at their cleanest since the Industrial Revolution. As an example, the River Tyne has witnessed the biggest number of migrating salmon since records began and the Thames, which 50 years ago was so polluted it was declared biologically dead, hosted record numbers of sea trout.

Because of this concentrated cleanup of the waters and the return of fish to those waters, otters began to spread back eastwards into England from their strongholds in Devon and in areas of the Welsh otters2borders, such as the Wye Valley.

By the time of the fourth otter survey, carried out between 2000 and 2002, more than 36 per cent of the sites examined showed otter traces; and when the fifth survey was carried out, between 2009 and 2010, the figure had risen to nearly 60 per cent, with otters back in every English county except Kent. Now wildlife experts at the Environment Agency have confirmed that there are at least two otters in Kent, which have built their holts on the River Medway and the River Eden.

"The recovery of otters from near-extinction shows how far we've come in controlling pollution and improving water quality," said Alastair Alastair DriverDriver (right), the Environment Agency's National Conservation Manager. "Rivers in England are the healthiest for over 20 years, and otters, salmon and other wildlife are returning to many rivers for the first time since the industrial revolution.

The otter resurgence has been so successful that the River Wye and some rivers in the south-west have now reached their maximum capacity. Otters are also widespread in Cumbria and Northumbria, Wessex and the upper reaches of the Severn.

The resurgence of the otter, which is top of the food chain in river environments, is an indicator that English rivers are at their healthiest Terry Nutkinsfor more than 20 years, according to the Environment Agency. Terry Nutkins (left), the naturalist and friend of Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water, said he was "absolutely overjoyed" by the return of the otter across England.

"They are such a beautiful species of the weasel family and part of our heritage," he said. "It's good news and shows that the rivers are clean and there are more people becoming involved with environmental issues."public domain logo image for Wildlife Trusts

A spokesperson for The Wildlife Trusts said: "This is fantastic news. We will continue our work to improve habitats for these magnificent animals and to promote the otter as a flagship species of healthy wetland ecosystems. However, we must not be complacent. There is still a great deal of work to do before otters are widespread once more."

The resurgence of the otter has not delighted everyone, however, and angler John Wilsonanglers have reported otters decimating stocks in fishing lakes. The angler John Wilson recently called the otter "a wanton killer" and some fishing groups have called for a cull. Many angling clubs have been forced to erect expensive fences around lakes to keep otters out.

Some conservationists warn that sightings of otters in new habitats may reflect otters roaming more widely in search of food rather than a big increase in numbers.

Grace Yoxon of the International Otter Survival Fund said evidence
of a surge in otter numbers should be treated with caution. "We just don't have the data [on population increases]," she said.

Otters are slow to reproduce and most mothers only bear two sets of cubs in their lifetime.

"It's not physically possible for them to spread very quickly," said Yoxon. "The biggest problem is human encroachment and the destruction of habitat, and increasingly many otters are hit on the roads."

Otters are also sometimes caught in crayfish traps.

Environment AgencyThe Environment Agency, working with partners including wildlife and angling organizations, has this year been granted an additional £18m of funding by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help more English rivers meet new EU targets on the health of rivers.

Otters have also benefited from reductions in the volume of water
extracted from rivers by water companies, farmers and industry. According to the Environment Agency, around 35m fewer liters a day are now being taken from the River Darent in Kent than 20 years ago, support larger populations of wildlife including brown trout and pike.

Otters are back in English waters


The Guardian,"Otters are back – in every county in England", accessed August 23, 2011

News Feed Centre, "Otters now in each English county", accessed August 23, 2011

Top News, "Otters recover from near-extinction in England", accessed August 23, 2011

The Independent, "Otters return to every county in England", accessed August 23, 2011

Global Animal, "Otters Make Comeback From Near Extinction", accessed August 23, 2011

The Guardian, "River clean-up brings otters back from brink of extinction", accessed August 23, 2011, published 18 October 2010

The Daily Mail, "Teeming bright waters bring new life to otters: Animals back from the brink of extinction thanks to river clean up" by Fiona Mccrae, accessed August 23, 2011


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