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Life and death on the river: otters are back

Friday 03 August 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who this week alerted the Environment Agency to the discovery of a dead otter on the outskirts of Skipton, reflects on 50 years of effort to bring back one of Britain's favourite animals

THERE was much to write about in the countryside this week, some good, some bad, and some very good indeed. But I actually found myself involved in one of the best bits of news that I have reported for years even though it might take a bit of explaining to the anti-field sports lobby which no doubt views me as a blood-thirsty killer.

The bad news came when a new survey showed that farmers are the worst off of any self-employed professional group, working longer hours for less income, being more susceptible to illness, and suffering the most stress - most of it caused by Government red tape.

Back on the Aire
Photo: Environment Agency

The better news was that 40,000 foreign scouts camped in our countryside to commemorate the centenary of Sir Robert Baden-Powell's creation of one of the world's truly great youth movements. That was to be the subject of this week's diary but I decided to postpone that until next week after my phone rang late on Tuesday evening.

The call came from one of those salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire Dales countrymen, Carl Parkinson, one-time farmer turned general contractor, owner of a rough shoot in Upper Wharfedale, and keen amateur naturalist. The body of a large dog otter had been found on the outskirts of Skipton, he said. Was I interested?

Interested is not the word. If this news were true, I said, I would do cartwheels. But, sadly, I was in fact suspicious: the area where the carcass had been found, by Eller Beck close to where it joins the River Aire, is infested with wild mink. Even if otters had returned to the Aire after some 50 years, I said, it was highly unlikely that they would use a beck which runs right through the centre of a town. The corpse would be a mink, I said.

Carl did not take this well. He is, amongst other things, an expert of wild deer and has studied fur and feather all his life. The deceased, he said, was a big male over three feet in length and had webbed feet. He knew fine well what a mink looked like and this damned well was an otter.

I was finally convinced but, unfortunately, the corpse was badly decomposed and he could see no obvious cause of injury. Yet the discovery of an otter so close to human habitation - which they have avoided for almost a century since they were hunted to the point of extinction - is so rare that we decided that expert scientific advice was needed.

First thing on Wednesday morning, I rang the Environment Agency is Leeds, knowing fine well that they are somewhat busy at the moment, what with floods and all. Yet my report was received with alacrity. Within hours, biodiversity officer Ellie Andison had driven to Skipton, collected the corpse and arranged to have it transported to Cardiff University, where scientists working on an otter census for the agency were hoping to submit it to a post mortem examination.

It is vitally important to know why it died - and fingers crossed that it was just old age. Because the last otter found in Yorkshire, over in the East Riding, had been shot, which shows that there are still imbeciles at large in our countryside, like the men who still hunt badgers with dogs or gamekeepers who poison rare birds like hen harriers and other hawks.

Why is the Skipton otter so important? Because they eat fish, including salmon and trout, they were hunted to the very edge of extinction until the early 20th Century - despite the fact that their favourite diet was eels, which killed many more fish by eating their spawning eggs in the millions.

There have been sightings on the Aire...from Malham to as far down as Bingley

It took two magnificent books, Tarka the Otter and Ring of Bright Water, timeless classics of the British countryside, to shake we humans to our senses and realise what a crime we had committed against nature. Soon after World War 11, dedicated naturalists began their first feeble attempts so save the species.

I say this as a fly fishermen who knows fine well that the otter and I pursue the same quarry. But they can have my share any time - and fishermen have been at the very forefront of the drive to bring the otter back. Just to see one hunting is a joy that will last an angling lifetime.

I know because in 50 years as a fisherman, in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland North and South, I have witnessed this near-miracle just once, some ten years ago on the River Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale. Ellie Andison's job at the Environment Agency is to log all otter sightings in Yorkshire. In 15 years in the job, she has never seen one live in the wild!

She has good news, however. There have been sightings on the Aire in recent years from Malham to as far down as Bingley. There have been others in Upper Wharfedale at Kettlewell and Kildwick. However, sightings can often be mistaken for mink. Now, in Eller Beck, there is (dead) flesh and blood proof that the otter is back. It took 50 long years...but it has been worth the wait.

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