A good year for otters

The Government's target of restoring the British otter population to pre-1960 levels by 2010 is becoming ever more achievable, last month's National Otter Forum was told.

Delegates and speakers – including Environment Minister, Michael Meacher – heard from the Wildlife Trusts that during the past year otters have returned to areas where they were previously absent, including rivers in Norfolk and four tributaries of the upper Trent.

The reason for the recovery, according to Water UK Chairman, Brian Duckworth, can be linked directly to improvements in river water quality.

If otter numbers are an indicator of healthy rivers then the available evidence would seem to back Mr. Duckworth’s claim. At the Forum, the Wildlife Trusts reported an unconfirmed sighting of an otter in Poole Harbour – the first for 20 years, signs of otters elsewhere in Dorset for the first time in a quarter of a century, and even news of otters at an STW on the outskirts of Derby.

The presence of otters usually means that a river is fairly free of pollution, offers reasonable habitat and supports plentiful fish stocks.

The National Otter Forum was convened to look at the progress of the £1.5M Otters and Rivers Project set up last year by Water UK and the Wildlife Trusts to highlight otter conservation work in the UK and to examine the continuing threats to otters in the countryside. Water UK, as champion of the otter Species Action Plan, is the major funder of the project at a national level together with Biffaward.
Funds are distributed regionally to priority projects based at Wildlife Trusts and used to support the project directorate. Local projects supplement national funding with support from the water companies, the Environment Agency and other commercial sponsors, the largest of which is Fina. Since its launch the project has built up a workforce of 20 otter and rivers project officers and more than 500 volunteers.

Pamela Taylor, Chief Executive of Water UK, said: “The otter is the best indicator of the good job we’re doing in tackling environmental issues and growing evidence of their return is living proof of our success in improving river water quality. The Otters and Rivers Project is part of the water industry’s broader strategy to protect and preserve habitats and wildlife in all its forms.”

Water industry support is the largest corporate sponsorship ever for a threatened species in the UK. Ms. Taylor called for business to follow Water UK’s example of promoting biodiversity.

Historic distribution of the otter

Common and widespread in the early 1950s, the otter declined dramatically from about 1957 onwards, due to pollution from farm pesticides and habitat loss. By the late 1970s, the otter was almost extinct in most of England, parts of Wales and areas of Scotland. In 1978 otter hunting was outlawed, and with the phasing out of hydrocarbon pesticides in the UK, and the efforts of conservation bodies, the otter has made a gradual but only partial return. Latest surveys show that otters have a wide but sporadic distribution throughout the UK. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan target for otters is to restore breeding otters to all river catchments where they were present before 1960.

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