Wildlife Conservation – European Otters

European Otters suffered significantly in the UK, and were virtually extinct in the 1960s. Their population density has increased since then. Although there are still only an estimated 10-11 thousand individuals in the wild today. It will therefore not come as a surprise that they are still classified as a near threatened species; by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They are categorised as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, and are fully protected in the UK under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Whilst European Otters are found in many of the waterways in the UK, for many people, seeing them in conservation centres is one of the only opportunities they get to see these fantastic animals. There is no substitute however to seeing them in their natural habitat. All of the images in this article are in the wild. Additionally, no baiting or disruption to the otters habitat or behaviours occurred to achieve these images.

Photography is a form of visual communication, and in its way raises the public awareness of wildlife and nature. This article is written with this aim in mind. All of the photographs in this article are Copyright, and may not be used without express permission.

European Otter

Mankind – Otters Worst Enemy

Despite their protected status, mankind remains the greatest threat to Otters in the UK. For example, reports in Scotland have included abhorrent behaviours by people such as:

  • Camper van occupants disposing of their sewerage into waterways.
  • Tourists attempting to block otter hides with debris for sport.
  • Fishermen and poachers leaving hooks, nets, and other related debris around waterways.
  • General littering and dumping of waste by the general public.

Diet

The Eurasian Otter predominantly feeds on small fish and invertebrates. However, as carnivores they will also tackle larger prey such as moorhens or ducks. They will even eat mammals such as rabbits if they get the opportunity.

Habitat

Their habitat needs to be both clean and with a source of fresh water. This supports both their prey, and in order for the otters to keep their fur clean to maintain its insulation.  Salt water impairs the furs ability to maintain insulation, which is why even coastal otters need a source of fresh water.

European Otter

In the UK European Otters live in rivers, and canals, as well as in large bodies of water such as lochs and ponds. As alluded to above, being opportunistic hunters, they will also venture into urban areas including fisheries or even ponds.

Size and Appearance

Otters are in the mustelid family of animals, which also includes weasels, badgers, ferrets, martens, minks, and wolverines. European otters have a dense double coated fur coat. Typically this is dark brown on top and a lighter brown underbody. Though, they can appear almost black in colour in the water. They are a typical mustelid shape with short legs and a muscular body. Their nose and eyes are either brown or black in colour, and they have small rounded eyes and webbed feet. Another one of their prominent features is their long whiskers. In summary, they are perfectly evolved to live and hunt in their natural habitat.

Otters eyesight is acute both below and above the water, making them ideally suited to aquatic hunting. In terms of size, they are typically 60-90cm (2-3 ft) long, weigh between (13-37 lbs), and stand on their 4 legs at about 30cm (12 in). The male otter is visibly larger than the female otter.

Behaviour

European Otter

A semi-aquatic animal, they can hold their breath for around a minute to hunt. So when you see them in the wild you will regularly spot them surfacing to grab some air. Their metabolism is high, and consequently they must eat a large portion of their body weight each day (12% per day for male otters during the winter). They are restless and playful animals, and mainly hunt nocturnally. For this reason, your best chance to spot them in the wild is in the early morning.

Otters are typically solitary in nature. However, if the resources in an area allow, they are known to live in small family groups. Both male and female otters can be highly aggressive to others of the same or the opposite sex. Males in particular often show the wounds of fighting (picture left).

Courtship occurs over the course of a week, with cubs splitting from a family group at around 8-12 months.

Otters breed all year round, with cubs reported in most habitats year round. However, in Scotland they tend to favour the Spring and Summer months, most likely due to the weather. Otter cubs are completely blind for around the first month of their lives, and swim from around 12 weeks old. Only the females take a parental role in their cubs, and females can produce a litter of up to 3 cubs each year.

Making Waves

Longevity

In the wild, otters live to around 3-5 years. In captivity though they are known to live to up to 17 years.

Natural Predators

Their main natural predator in the UK is Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles, who will in particular target the cubs.

Summary

If you enjoyed this article on European Otters, and would like to show your support to these beautiful animals, then the Wild Otter images from this article as well as many more, are available through my website. 50% of all profits from the sale of Otter Fine Art Wall Prints, Wall Art, Desk Art & Keepsakes will be donated to the International Otter Survival Fund.

References

Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain & Northern Ireland – ISBN: 978-1784272043 – 2020

Otters: Ecology, behaviour and conservation – ISBN: 978-0198565864 – 2008


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