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Lessons learned: the great otter comeback

Friday 22 October 2010

In a week dominated by Government cuts, our veteran countryside commentator John Sheard reflects on the good news: the return of the otters after we nearly wiped them out with hunting and bad science

IT IS almost impossible to place one’s earliest childhood memories on the correct timescale but, at a guess, I was probably about three when my mother took me to a nearby pond and allowed me to fish for tadpoles with a small net on a long bamboo pole.

By the time I was five or six, I had graduated to hunting minnows with a bread-baited jam jar on a piece of string. And I was certainly less than ten when I was presented with my first fishing rod, a single piece outfit made from a war surplus radio aerial from a tank with a cotton line and a penny hook.

Back from the brink

From there, it was a direct line of progression to becoming a passionate fly fisherman and, in the past half century or so, I have pursued trout, salmon and sea trout in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland north and south. It is impossible to calculate how long I have spent on the river bank – or in a boat on an Irish lough – but it must be thousands of hours.

And in all that time, one burst of near ecstasy lasting no more than 15 seconds or so stands out like a flash of burnished gold in a memory bank of silver and bronze angling reveries: the one and only time in a lifetime that I saw a wild otter in its natural environment.

It was on the River Lune on a magical August dawn, the sun just poking its head over the fells, the mist rising from the river like smoke. I was nearing a deep pool where, I hoped, the grilse would lie, the small one-winter- at -sea salmon which grow to only to six or seven pounds but are mouth watering when poached whole in wine and herbs in a proper fish kettle.

Then I saw it, amongst the gnarled roots of a big oak on the river bank, standing on its rear legs and grooming its front paws. I had waited perhaps thirty years for this moment and must have let out some tiny gasp of amazement. And the big dog otter heard.

It went headlong into the pool and all I saw then was a string of bubbles as he swam under water, torpedo straight, to overhanging bushes on the opposite bank. There was a slight rustle of branches and that was it: 15 seconds or so of pure magic out of half a century, a flash of excitement I still feel as I write this today.

I am far from alone in this. I have interviewed Environment Agency scientists working to build artificial otter holts in Upper Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales who have never seen one. I spoke to a man who lived on an island in the middle of the River Aire for 15 years and, although he found their tracks and their marker spraint droppings, he never saw one either.

And the reasons for that is, quite simply, bad science. For my fly fishing travels began more or less at the same time that our farmers, inadvertently, began poisoning not just otters but also many of our birds of prey. The killers were pesticides containing DDT like substances called dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor.

But no-one at the time, as far as I am aware, realised that a similar scourge was killing off otters...

These were used on seed dressings and their inventors had tested them on song birds which of course delight in gorging on wheat, oats and barley, as do various species of small mammals. The small birds were not affected, or so it seemed, so a massive sales drive went ahead.

What the scientists had not realised was that these small birds and mammals stored the poisons in their livers. When they were eaten by predators, they built up even larger quantities in hawks and owls. By 1960, ornithologists were reporting cases of eggs failing to hatch which, on analysis, were found to contain traces of these poisons. Then adult birds began to die.

As a young freelance, I broke those findings in the national press. But no-one at the time, as far as I am aware, realised that a similar scourge was killing off otters, which live off not just fish but small mammals, water bird eggs, and frogs. The aquatic environment had been poisoned and it took years before anyone noticed.

Otter hunting was still allowed at the time and was not banned until 1979, two long decades when these wonderful mammals was already dying out as a victim of chemical warfare. It was one of the most disgraceful episodes in British environmental history.

That is the opinion of rival fisherman, for otters certainly kill salmon and trout but as a man who spends much of his time in the countryside, the survival of this wonderful creature is immensely more important than a (rare) full creel for me.

The good news is that, whilst the national media was this week obsessed with Government cuts, the Environment Agency reported that the otter has staged a massive comeback and is now found in every English county bar Kent (see News).

The reasons for this are fewer dangerous chemicals on our farms and gardens; cleaner rivers thanks to anti-pollution drives; and more fish. Science nearly killed off the otter and science has helped to restore it to its natural place in our countryside. There are vitally important lessons to be learned here. Let’s hope they have sunk in.

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