Guide to Britain’s otters: history, their return and where to see them

Learn all about this carnivorous, semi-aquatic mammal, including what they look like, where they live and the best time to see them

Close up portrait of European River Otter (Lutra lutra) in pond covered in duckweed

You are more likely to see an otter today in the UK than ever before, yet their elusive nature still makes them a difficult spot.

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Our guide explores the history of the European otter in Britain, from the 1950s when the species was on the the brink of extinction to the still-rare yet widespread populations of the present day. We also look at the key characteristics of the European otter, what they eat and the best places to see them.

European otter on the River Kent
European otters can live up to the age of 10, but few survive more than five years in the wild
Getty

Guide to otters in Britain, including history, threats and where to see them.


What is an otter?

The European otter, or lutra lutra (scientific name), is a carniverous mammal of the Mustelidae family (mustelid). There are seven species of mustelid living in the wild in the UK, each varying widely in looks and behaviour. Generally speaking mustelids are long-bodied, short-legged, thickly furred and tend to be active at night, which makes them elusive.

Otters are adapted to life on both land and in water. They have webbed feet for swimming, dense fur for warmth, and can close their ears and nose underwater. The otter is a fish hunter, though it happily eats waterbirds, amphibians and crustaceans too, including American signal crayfish. At 8kg, it is our second-largest mustelid and is becoming increasingly common in our rivers and lakes as its numbers rebound after centuries of persecution.

Beavers in river
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Where do otters live?

Otters seek clean rivers, filled with food and overgrown banks where they can raise their cubs. Their favourite habitats include wetlands, rivers and coastlines. Though still considered rare, the species is widespread in the UK and can be seen in almost every county. For the best chance of spotting an otter, head to Scotland, the west coast of Wales, East Anglia and South-West Endland.

When is the best time to see otters?

Otters breed all year round and you are as likely to see one in the depths of winter as you are at the height of summer.

Otters on the Shetland Islands, Scotland
Otters on the Shetland Islands, Scotland
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What is the best way to spot otters?

Stay quiet. Look out for muddy, semi-circular slides on the side of the river. There may be five-clawed footprints in the dirt where the otters have hauled themselves in and out of the water. Otter droppings, or spraints, are often used to mark territory.

The return of otters to the UK

Twenty-five years ago, The English otter population was on the brink of extinction after half a century of agricultural chemicals leaching into the rivers and polluting the food chain. Thankfully, following the ban of these chemicals in the early 1990s, water quality increased and the slow-road to recovery began. Fish populations returned to the rivers and lakes, and as a result you are more likely to see an otter today than at any time in the past sixty years.

The revival of the otter (Lutra lutra) across Britain has been one of the great conservation successes of the past fifty years. Having been threatened with extinction in the late 1950’s, numbers have slowly recovered, and following a ban on hunting in 1978 and improvements to river quality, otters can now be found in every British county.

The otter’s celebrated return to Britain’s rivers isn’t welcomed by everybody. Some commercial fishery owners are concerned that these supreme aquatic hunters are taking prize specimen fish and there have even been calls for otter culls.

Otter on the coast
Otters live on the coast, as well as in rivers and wetlands
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Otter problems and solutions

This isn’t good news for everybody however. Many anglers are anxious of the impact that otters are having on fish stocks, while some fishery owners are concerned for their livelihoods. Otters are efficient hunters, quite capable of catching prey as heavy as themselves, but are they really a threat to our fish stocks? After all, a healthy ecology should support both predator and prey.

A rise in predator population will normally force a short term drop in prey species, and on rivers where otters have only recently colonised the impact can be marked. In some situations, high profile stretches of water have been affected. In recent years, the two biggest known barbel in Britain are believed to have been predated by otters – both from rivers, The Great Ouse and Ivel, where the mammals have only recently returned.

Outskirts of Ely on the River Great Ouse, Cambridgeshire
Otters have recently returned to the River Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire
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The owners of managed fisheries cannot afford to wait for this equilibrium however. A thirty pound carp may be forty years old and cannot be easily replaced, and anglers will not be interested in fishing a water that has a depleted stock. Many commercial fisheries are man-made but fed by streams which otters may follow, and a heavily stocked lake is a perfect otter larder.

Otter eating a signal crayfish
Otters can help keep the spread of alien species, such as signal crayfish, in check
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Some fishery owners have installed fences around their lakes, but are powerless should an otter find its way inside. These mammals are fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, meaning it is illegal to capture, kill, disturb or injure an otter, regardless of circumstance.

Over the past two years, a group headed up by the UK Wild Otter Trust, the Angling Trust, the Predation Action Group, and independent fishery owners have been working to address this situation. And as a result, Natural England have recently issued the first licence allowing the trapping and removal of otters from within a fenced fishery.

Common frog
Frogs are an important source of food for otters in spring
Alamy

Once caught, the otter will be released immediately outside the fishery boundary causing the animal minimal distress and allowing it to remain on familiar or established territory.

In a world where so many issues become polarized, this is a landmark victory for common sense. For as long as anglers and conservationists can work together and remain proactive, the otter can be a welcome and integral part of our aquatic environment.


Where to spot otters

Chilbolton Cow Common, Hampshire

Chilbolton Cow Common, Hampshire
Chilbolton Cow Common, Hampshire
Alamy

Chilbolton Cow Common in Hampshire is a great place to see wild otters. There is a this short walk along the River Test that is great for training your eye at spotting the UK’s largest semi-aquatic mammal.

Cricklepit Mill, Devon Wildlife Trust

Cricklepit Mill, Exeter
Spot otters at Cricklepit Mill in Exeter
Geograph

In the heart of Exeter City Centre, this urban location provides an easily accessible place to spot an otter.  There’s even a hide you can use to wait without being spotted. You may smell an otter before you see one, as their droppings, which are called spraints, each carry their own idiosyncratic scent. This provides a means of communication for each otter and can also indicate that an otter is nearby.

Wolseley Centre, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

European otter
European otter

Otters have been sighted on Wolseley Centre’s special night vision camera. The camera, positioned on the banks of the brook that leads into the River Trent, has recently captured numerous images of otter activity. Although otters are most active at nighttime, the footage confirms that this beautiful site does indeed play host to these sought-after creatures and so otter seekers are in with a great chance of catching a glimpse of them, even in the day.

Directions: In Wolseley Bridge, on the A51 approx 2 miles NW of Rugeley. Grid ref: SK 024 202.

Ranworth Broad, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Ranworth Broad in Norfolk
Walkway running through Ranworth Broad in Norfolk
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The floating Broads Wildlife Centre enables you to spot its otters by boat.  The Norfolk’s Wildlife Trust runs electric boat trips every 45 minutes, departing at 10:45am, 12:15pm, 2pm and 3:30pm. When in the water, otters swim very flat on the water’s surface, becoming increasingly visible when they dive, as their tail becomes arched above the surface. This makes the otters noticeable from a distance.  Bubbles are also an indication of otter activity. Otters close their nostrils when they are beneath the surface; this causes air to be forced from their coats, which leaves a trail of bubbles on the surface of the water. Otters also leave a v-shaped wake behind them as they swim, meaning that the surface of the water can hold many clues as to the whereabouts of a nearby otter.

Directions: Close to the village of Ranworth, look for signs for Broads Wildlife Centre Car-park. Grid Ref: TG 358151.

Aughton Woods, Lancashire

Aughton Woods and the Lune River, Lancashire
Aughton Woods and the Lune River, Lancashire
Geograph

This woodland wonder provides ample opportunity for otter spotters. The clue to carefully look at the trail, as footprints are a key indication of otter action. An otter’s footprints are usually asymmetric and often display only four toes, despite the fact that they actually have five. The footprints range in size, from between 40-80mm across and are not to be confused with Mink prints, which are much smaller.

Directions: 5 miles NE of Lancaster between Aughton and Caton. Car Park at Crook ‘o Lune; public footpath along the river. Grid ref: SD 543 663


Otter spotting with expert Simon Cooper

Join Simon Cooper, author of The Otter’s Tale and Life of a Chalkstream, on his quest to sight otters at Chilbolton Cow Common in Hampshire.

My companion made a fairly passable imitation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream when I told her what time we needed to meet for some otter spotting. I’m not sure pre-dawn was what she had in mind, but Imogen was true to her word and we met in the early hours of a May morning, when most sensible people were still in bed.

Given our heroic efforts to beat the arrival of dawn, we had hoped to be rewarded with decent weather. Instead, it was cold, with the added bonus of a sideways drizzle. We had no choice, however – the two hours before dawn and the two hours after dusk are the best times to spot otters. And it was not as if the British weather was going to deter them. Let’s face it, if you had a coat of waterproof fur that was 200 times denser than the hair on a human head, you’d laugh in the face of a bit of rain.

Chilbolton Cow Common, Hampshire
Morning mist over Chilbolton Cow Common in Hampshire
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On the plus side, and in spite of the cloud, the fading moon lit our way across the common, the yellow flag irises, thrusting sedge grasses and buttercups faintly discernible alongside the path. Ahead of us was the bending river – a wide, shallow, silver ribbon – the banks marked with deep, muddy ditches where the cattle come to graze and drink – the name Chilbolton Cow Common is as relevant today as it was in medieval times.

1. A sense of scale

Otters breed all year round and you are as likely to see one in the depths of winter as you are at the height of summer. For me, that is their fascination – they are constantly among us, but such is their private nature that we rarely see them. It is remarkable when you consider they are the UK’s largest semi-aquatic mammal. An adult otter will easily tip the scales at 11kg, measuring well over a metre in length from nose to rudder, as otter aficionados like to call the tail.

As we turn downriver off the well-trodden Test Way, the going gets tougher. The cattle haven’t made it easy for us. You need well-fitted wellingtons for the boot-engulfing mires, an ability to take uneven ground in your stride and an acceptance that you will return home with muddy trousers. But that’s the price you pay for venturing into otter territory.

A great place to spot otters, Chilbolton Cow Common is also home to kestrels, owls and red kites ©Simon Cooper
A great place to spot otters, Chilbolton Cow Common is also home to kestrels, owls and red kites ©Simon Cooper

Twenty-five years ago, this walk would have been pointless. The English otter population was on the brink of extinction after half a century of agricultural chemicals leaching into the rivers and polluting the food chain. Thankfully, following the ban of these chemicals in the early 1990s, water quality increased and the slow-road to recovery began. Fish populations returned to the rivers and lakes, and as a result you are more likely to see an otter today than at any time in the past sixty years.

2. Signs of life

It doesn’t take long for us to come across the first signs. Otters are a great help to anyone who wishes to track them as they are creatures of habit and follow the same routes, travelling as much on land as they do in water.

Crouching down beside the riverbank, I use a torch to point out a muddy, semi-circular slide into the river, the wet dirt embedded with five-clawed footprints where the otters have hauled themselves in and out of the water. Otter droppings, or spraints, are often used to mark territory. We spot some, telling us that that they were here recently, no longer than a day ago.

Imogen was evidently worried about me using a torch, but she needn’t have been. As long as it is used discreetly, the bright light won’t spook otters; they are notoriously short-sighted. However, we both keep really quiet and talk only in whispers – otters have acute hearing.  Similarly, I don’t worry about the sound of our squelching feet – these creatures are used to the cattle creating a similar commotion.

Our progress is slow, but deliberately so because otters, whether they are a lone dog (male) or a mother with pups, travel many miles in a night. Chasing them down is a pointless affair. You are better off finding their regular routes and hoping your paths cross.

Entry and exit points to the river, known as slides, are a clear sign of otter activity ©Simon Cooper
Entry and exit points to the river, known as slides, are a clear sign of otter activity ©Simon Cooper

3. A burst of life

In all likelihood, you’ll hear an otter before you see one, so we mostly wait and listen. The ancient sedge grass tussocks make comfortable seats as we watch the sky turn from gunmetal grey to pinkish silver – dawn is here. The rain gradually fades to nothing. A barn owl takes a last turn above the common in search of unwary prey. And then suddenly, from somewhere upriver, there comes a raspy cough. I signal to Imogen to keep quiet, motioning towards the river as the cough gives way to splashing.

All of a sudden, this sleek, dark, wet creature appears – half swimming, half wading – through the shallow water, moving in that strange, lolloping way that otters do as their backs rise then fall with each motion. Opposite us, he or she, I can’t tell which, pops out of the water on to a grassy promontory. Like a cat, the otter busily grooms its fur and paws. After a few minutes, it stops, head still, nose twitching, one half-groomed leg poised in the air.

The Eurasian otter has poor eyesight and acute hearing
The Eurasian otter has poor eyesight and acute hearing

4. Reflection

Whether the otter caught wind of our scent, or the rising sun reminded it of the daytime safety of its holt, I don’t know, but with one fluid movement, it had disappeared into the river.

Retracing our steps in the light of the morning, thoughts of the early start vanished as we revelled in the magic of what we had just witnessed.

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Follow in Simon Cooper’s footsteps with a walk through Chilbolton Cow Common.