The Wonderful thing about Otters – Glencoe Wood Nature Reserve
The recent sightings of otters at Glencoe Wood Nature Reserve have been very exciting and encouraging. They are extraordinary creatures and wonderful to spot in the wild. Sometimes you may see the mother playing with her pups and teaching them how to hunt, or sometimes the male, who tends to be larger. Otters are masterful swimmers, thanks to their sleek streamlined bodies and a powerful muscular tail.
Although they have survived in parts of Western Scotland and its islands, otters were almost extinct in Britain until the turn of this century. Then the UK biodiversity Action Plan concentrated its efforts across the country to revive the numbers of otters, and since then some progress has been made.
The pups stay with their mother for a year or more as they learn all the techniques for hunting and survival. Because an otter has a high metabolic rate in order to keep itself warm, it has to eat 15% of its body weight in fish every day. It eats about 100 grams of fish for every hour, so that’s a lot of hunting. It is very dependent on fish, so if stocks fall short then the otter population fails too.
This is how otters became so rare in the UK. One of the chief reasons for the otter’s decline was the use of chlorinated pesticides, called DDTs, which poisoned water supplies and reduced fish populations throughout the 20th century. Although DDTs have been successfully banned, other controversial pesticides constantly threaten the balance of life in the countryside.
Otters belong to the Lutinae family, a sub-branch of the Mustelids, to which pine martens and badgers belong. They have dense light brown fur, which was another reason for their decline: before we indirectly killed them with pesticides we hunted them for their much sought-after fur, which was worn by the wealthy as a status symbol.
The otter’s den is called a holt. The male is a dog, and the female is known as a bitch. The collective noun for a group of otters is a bevy, or a romp. In the water it’s a raft of otters. They are extremely playful and social creatures, often seen playing simply for the joy of it. They have been observed making water slides in the mud and sliding down them into the river. They also play with stones, have several different squeaking noises with which they communicate to each other, and love to slide around on the ice in winter!
Playing with stones is reminiscent of their distant cousins, the sea otters of the Pacific, who use a stone to break shells open and will carry it with them in a pouch of skin under their arms, one of the few examples in nature of animals using their own tools. This shows a strong intelligence. Here is a clip an internet clip of some Asian river otters playing with stones and squeaking:
Although we associate them with water, otters need to spend a lot of their time on dry land in order to keep their fur from getting too waterlogged. Their little faces make a tell-tale V shape in the water as they swim, or else if they are underwater you can see a trail of bubbles as they slowly breathe out. When underwater they can close their nostrils and ears. As well as fish, otters can eat small crustaceans, like crabs, and they can supplement their diet with frogs and small water birds. They can live up to 16 years in the wild.
The reason otters have whiskers is to help them hunt. They use these to detect the subtle movements of fish. That way they can hunt effectively in pitch darkness. Their eyesight, however, is quite poor, in water and on land.
The playful and intelligent otter has been the subject of literature. Ring of Bright Water, published in 1960, was a book, later made into a film, written by the naturalist Gavin Maxwell, who lived on Sandaig, a small group of islands near Lochalsh in the Western Highlands. The otter his book was based on, called Mijbil, was actually a sub species of smooth-coated otter which he brought back from Iraq.
Another famous ottery creation is Tarka the Otter: his joyful life and death in the Country of the Two Rivers, by Henry Williamson, published in 1927. This book has never been out of print and has influenced famous literary figures such as Ted Hughes the poet, and Rachel Carson who went on to write her highly influential ecological bestseller, ‘Silent Spring’.
Otters have inspired us in extraordinary ways. Their playful natures have much to teach the human population. Though it can be rare to see them, it is worth the long wait by a riverbank. When you finally catch a glimpse of one, it’s a magical sight that will be treasured forever.
And here’s the clip that started it all, the one that told us they had found our Reserve –