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.
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.
While the presence of otters might have an impact on existing fish stocks, this will be a relatively short term trend. As affected fish species evolve to cope with the presence of otters, so a natural balance will form. In the long-term, the otter can play a key role in a river’s ecology, and perhaps help to check the spread of alien species such as the signal crayfish and mitten crab.
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.
A carp fishery near Bridgwater, Somerset by Martin Hasluck
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.
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.
Otters on an English river – <a href=”http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/search/photographer?photographer=Elizabeth+Ann+Duffy+%2F+EyeEm&excludenudity=true&family=creative&page=1&phrase=otter&sort=best”>Elizabeth Ann Duffy / EyeEm</a>
Main image: Otter with pike by Dean S Eades birdmad.com/©Getty