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Common Otter
Current Status
What to do:
        Otters on your land
        Habitat is threatened
        Otters and development

The increase in wild otters (Lutra lutra) is one of the greatest conservation success stories of recent years. A survey in 2003 found otters in areas of the country they have not been in for nearly 50 years. Once fairly widespread they declined dramatically in numbers, most notably after the Second World War due to poor water quality, pollution, loss of habitat and persecution. Conservation efforts are addressing all of these issues and the steady increase in their numbers and range is now evident.

Identification of otters

Few people see otters in the wild in Britain because they are scarce and secretive. Even where they do occur, it is more usual to see an otter’s droppings (spraint) than the animal itself, except perhaps on Scotland’s west coast.
The otter is a long, slim, flat-headed animal that swims and dives well. Mostly nocturnal, if they are seen it is likely to be in or near water. Their spraint is diagnostic, commonly left in conspicuous places such as fallen trees over water or large boulders or parts of bridges. It contains small fish bones, which are easily noticeable, and smells faintly perfumed! They regularly leave a tar-like substance along with their scat.

Otters are streamlined in appearance with a head and body length of approximately 90 cm. They have a powerful, tapering tail and short, strong legs with webbed feet. Their head is flattened with small ears, eyes and nostrils set well to the top of the head, which aids surface swimming.

Otters can be confused with the non-native American mink but they do differ substantially in size – the head and body length of mink is much smaller being approximately 40 cm. The mink has a more pointed snout, darker colouring and swims jerkily unlike the smooth action seen in the otter.

  Current status of the otter

Although once quite widespread in Britain, otters suffered a substantial decline after the Second World War, hitting an all-time low during the 1970’s. Fortunately, they have remained fairly common in parts of Scotland, in particular the west coast and its islands. Recent conservation efforts in England are beginning to pay off as a survey in 2003 found a substantial increase in the range now occupied by otters suggesting an increase in overall numbers. Their new range now includes areas of the country they have not been in for nearly 50 years. The cause for the otters’ resurgence in England’s rivers is due to the banning of toxic pesticides such as Aldrin and Dieldrin, lower pollution levels, legal protection and increased fish stocks and better management of riverbanks.
Legislation covering otters

Otters are fully protected under UK and European legislation:

Bern Convention 1979: Appendix II
Wildlife & Countryside Act (as Amended) 1981: Schedule 5 & 6
EC Habitats Directive 1992: Annex II and IV
Conservation (Natural Habitats etc.) Regulations 1994: Schedule 2
Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW 2000)

As otters are listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, Section 9(1) of the Act makes it an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take otters. Section 9(2) makes it an offence to possess or control a live or dead otter or any part or thing derived from them. Section 9(4) makes it an offence to intentionally damage, destroy, obstruct access to, any structure or place which otters use for shelter or protection. It is also an offence to intentionally disturb them while occupying a structure or place which it uses for that purpose. Section 9(5) makes it an offence to sell, offer or expose for sale, or possess or transport for the purpose of sale, any live or dead otter or any part or thing derived from them. It is also an offence to publish or cause to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that otters, or parts or derived things of them are bought, sold or are intended to be. Section 9 applies to all stages in their life cycle. Otters receive extra protection to most other wild animals because of their inclusion on Schedule 6 of this Act. Thus, Section 11(2) makes it against the law to use traps, snares, nets, gas, any electrical device, any poisonous, poisoned or stupefying substance for killing or stunning otters. Further to this, it is also an offence to use any automatic or semi-automatic weapon, any sighting device, or illuminating or dazzling device for the purpose of night shooting.

Their inclusion on Schedule 2 of the Conservation Regulations 1994 affords otters extra protection by also making it an offence under Regulation 39(1) to deliberately capture, kill or disturb otters or to deliberately take or destroy their young, or damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place. Regulation 39(2) makes it an offence to keep, or transport, or exchange otters or any part or thing derived from them. Paragraphs 39(1) and 39(2) apply to all stages of their life cycle.

This level of legal protection allows areas to be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and/or Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for the presence of otters. These designations bring legal restrictions to the management and operations that can occur in such sites, to help conserve the otter and the specific habitats it requires.

The maximum fine on conviction of offences is currently £5,000. The CRoW Act amended the 1981 Act to allow for a custodial sentence of up to six months instead of, or in addition to, a fine. Fines may be imposed in relation to each offence committed, so operations involving many animals or repeated offences can potentially accrue large fines. In addition, items or equipment, which may constitute evidence of the commission of an offence, may be seized and detained. The CRoW Act also amends the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to render Section 9 offences ‘arrest-able’, giving the police significant additional powers.

If in doubt over any legal issue relating to otters contact the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO) for advice.

This is only a brief interpretation of the law concerning otters – reference should always be made to the original texts of the legislation if more detailed interpretation is needed (UK & European Legislation).

What to do if you have otters on your land
Advice for landowners – how you can help

If you are lucky enough to have otters on your land you should contact your local Biological Records Centre (Links). This will add valuable detail to the known distribution of otters, helping to focus conservation efforts.

It is possible to help the conservation of otters by acting locally and enhancing the habitat conditions on your land. Sympathetic management of watercourses is essential and because of the high level of legal protection afforded to otters, it is important that all management works you carry out are cleared with the appropriate official body. The Environment Agency should be consulted on any works in or near a watercourse whilst the local Wildlife Trust can often provide advice on any special management tasks that benefit protected species such as the otter.

Typical requirements for otters are more resting places, termed ‘holts’. Males can use up to 30 in a single day whereas females need quiet, undisturbed dens to raise young. Clean, unpolluted water is critical not only for otters but also for the fish and other prey on which they depend. Managing waterside vegetation and in-stream habitat for fish is important to attain high numbers of prey for otters.

Some people consider otters a pest, as they are known to eat large numbers of fish, which typically constitute 80 % of the otters’ diet. However, they do take all sorts of animals such as frogs, toads, molluscs, crustaceans, water birds and small mammals. If otters are taking fish that have been stocked in pools, streams or rivers for anglers, managing the land and water to benefit all biodiversity will increase other types of available food for otters, reducing the amount of fish they take.

What to do if a site used by otters is threatened by a development

Ideally, it is best if otters and their habitats are protected before planning permission has been given for development of a site. If a known or suspected otter site is threatened by a development, the local planning authority and the local office of the SNCO should be informed as far in advance as possible. These organisations will ensure that appropriate surveys are licensed to establish the use of the site by otters and that alternatives to the proposed development are considered as part of the planning process.

For activities that do not require planning permission it is best to contact the landowner before any work is due to start. The local SNCO or Wildlife Trust might be able to assist and provide advice to the landowner regarding conservation of their otters.

If there is evidence that the law has been broken or is about to be, the police should be informed, the best contact being a Police Wildlife Liaison Officer. For offences or potential offences such as excessive works or modifications to riverbanks and riverbeds, pond draining/infilling or fish stocking it is worth also contacting the local office of the Environment Agency

  What to do if otters are discovered during a development

If otters have only been discovered using a site after development has commenced, all works should be halted until a survey has been undertaken to assess the usage of the site by the otters and appropriate measures taken to protect them on site. Remember that if otters are present, it would be an offence to proceed works without an appropriate license.

For the development to proceed, special protection and compensation must be provided for the otters and their environment. This is termed mitigation, and specialist licensed ecological consultants such as JPR Environmental provide its strategies. Mitigation normally takes the form of providing suitable habitat features such as artificial holts or the installation of underpass crossing points and otter-proof fences on roads.
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