Eurasian Otter - Lutra lutra
The Eurasian (European) Otter is the only species found in the UK and can be seen in both freshwater (river) and saltwater (coastal) habitats. Over the years I have studied and photographed them in both. The otters I have concentrated on most are in Shetland and Norfolk giving an insight into the different lives in both habitats. Otters are protected in the UK under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, so please be aware and stay away from any holts or layups.
Eurasian otters have a small lifespan in the wild with the average otter only living to between 3-4 years. All otter have a unique throat pattern, so you can ID individuals if you get a clear view. Scars, too, are an easy way to ID. They are very territorial and male otters 'dogs' are solitary, only socialising with females once they come into season. The rest of their time is spent alone. Females (bitches) are similar, except they raise their young which takes up to a year from birth. After this, they push them out of their territory.
Species: L. lutra
Otter territories differ from place to place, but generally female territories are smaller than those of their male counterparts, who may typically cover between 1-4 female territories.
They recognise and distinguish one another's territories by sprainting (excrement). This is the main way otters communicate and helps prevent confrontation. They will spraint all along their territory especially in front of holts and lay-ups, as a message board to other otters as to who is inside.
The holt is the main resting area, where the otter sleep and rest. They typically have several holts along their territories which can range from hollowed-out trees to purposely dug holes in the bank. In fact, anywhere safe, dry and warm. Lay-ups are regular places where they have a quick sleep and warm up if they have been in the water too long. This is where you can see them curled up on a patch of grass, under a bush or on seaweed.
Otters need to keep warm and, as they carry hardly any fat, they rely on their coats. Luckily they have very dense fur with 60,000 hairs per cm² (about the size of a penny). This fur needs to be kept in great condition, which is why you will regularly see them grooming and rolling.
Otter spraint outside of a holt entrance.
At the bottom of the page, you can find a 'how to guide' on finding and watching otters.
Norfolk otters have adapted perfectly to live in and around rivers and have made an incredible comeback after nearly being wiped out from UK waters due to hunting and the pollution of rivers. Norfolk is now a stronghold for otters, some were released in the late 80's but they also recovered naturally. Many otters are nocturnal but more and more are deciding to come out during the day. The best times to try and find them, however, are dawn and dusk.
They prey on a large mixture of species from all of the classes; mammals, crustaceans, birds, amphibians and fish. The majority of their diet is fish and they are adapted to hunt in the murky waters of some of our rivers. Over the years I have witnessed some more unusual prey, chickens, water voles, water rail, mallards, pigeons, rabbits and have seen them eating Egyptian and greylag geese, although not sure if they were caught.
The following photos in this section show portraits of otters I have taken from within, and on the banks of, the river.
Otter families can be fairly elusive, especially during the first 6 months on the river and are harder to keep an eye on. They normally have one or two cubs but on occasions can have three and, rarely, four. Obviously, the more cubs they have the more the mother has to work and the better the feeding ground has to be to supply all the nutrients. From what I have observed over the years the majority end up successfully raising one or two cubs - and those that don't make it seem to be lost in the early months on the river.
They start off by being born in a natal holt, which is normally very secretive and can be a mile or so inland from the river. This is for safety and decreases the chances of other otter stumbling upon them. They stay here for two months and suckle from their mother, who goes out hunting every day still for herself. After this she brings them to the river and uses the holts along her territory.
Cubs stay with the female for around a year and get taught everything they need to know. For the first few months on the river, they will continue to suckle off the mum, but also feed on small prey that she catches. Following this, they start catching their own prey.
Cubs are very vocal and give out a high pitch squeak as a communication call between themselves and their mother. These calls can be a good way to find otters as the sound travels a long way along the river and are very distinctive.
With rivers running through most towns and cities, otters have had to adapt to living alongside us as we continually encroach on their habitat. In a number of towns and cities in the UK you can find urban otters. Most still patrol the town's riversides at night, while some have become bolder and venture out during the day allowing incredible views to the public.
Sadly our urbanised areas are getting increasingly polluted with litter. At the bottom of this section, you can find a number of images of otters surrounded by plastic wastewhich has found its way into the river system. This is a problem that is worsening and leads to more plastic ending up in our oceans. Equally depressing is the fact that this polluting is having a devasting impact on our wildlife which may get trapped, maimed or even ingest small parts of it.
Shetland is one of the best places in Europe to see otters. Its coastline is perfect otter habitat with the wildlife-rich seas replenishing their daily food supplies and the shorelines providing ideal holts in the easy-to-dig peatland. There are not many better places to go and photograph Eurasian otters.
Unlike the majority of otters which live in the rivers, coastal otters in Shetland come out in the daytime. The most active time is 2-3 hours before and after low tide. This is more efficient for the otters as it is the time when their prey species are less active and an easier catch .
Otters that use the sea have an extra routine they need to do daily; wash in freshwater. This is to cleanse their fur of salt. If they didn't wash it off, their fur would be less insulating and would become a fatal problem for them. So every day they locate a freshwater pool or stream to rinse their fur and have a drink.
Shetland otters have a huge range of prey species,mainly provided by the sea. Their favourites include butterfish and eelpout, which are nocturnal making them easy prey in the day when they normally shelter under rocks and seaweed during low tide. But they also catch a huge range of species such as octopus, lumpsuckers, conga eels, ling, scorpion fish, rockling and anything else they can get their teeth around. On odd occasions they have been seen to take rabbits and birds.
Crabs are abundant in Shetland but are normally overlooked by adult otters due to their low nutritional value. You will generally find cubs and sub-adults preying on them as they are easy to catch. Adult otters will however resort to start eating them if their favoured fish stocks become low.
Tips on how to find, watch and photograph otters.
When looking for otters, There are several factors you need to keep in mind.
They have good hearing, so make sure you make next to no noise, that includes the rustling of clothes. If you are photographing make sure you have your camera on silent mode or single shutter to minimise disturbance.
They have a very good sense of smell, so no strong perfume or deodorant. Make sure you are downwind of them, taking your scent away. If it was blowing towards them, they would smell you before you see them and they will be gone.
Their eyesight is fairly poor. So move slowly with no sudden movements, and wear clothes that are likely to blend into the background. If you walk across the skyline, otters will see your outline and disappear, so try and have banks, bushes or trees behind you obscuring your profile.
They dive underwater for about 20-30 seconds at a time, but can pop up earlier. When following them I normally move for 10-15 seconds then stop, hunker down and wait for it to surface. Then repeat when they dive. This allows you to keep up with them but also lowers the likelihood of them spotting you.
Look out for paw prints and fresh spraint,
this is a good indication if they have been
around recently. Otter paw prints have
Head out to look for them at sensible
times. In Shetland, 3 hours before and
after low tide. On the rivers, dawn till
2 hours after sunrise is normally best -
or two hours before sunset.
Good luck with your Ottering, let me know how you get on.