Country Matters June 22: R Otters Rotters?

by Arrowsmith

Photograph: Gay Gilmour LRPS gilmourphotography.co.uk.
Vicious young otters in the Abbey Grounds, Cirencester.

Mink coats used to be a luxury ‘fashion statement’ worn by wealthy women. Now it’s more fashionable to leave them for minks to wear.  Their cousins, otters, are the second largest British Mustelids: the family of mammals headed by badgers, which includes minks. Apex predators growing up to four feet (one and a quarter metres), otters are the freshwater killer whales of the UK. They’re a match for quite large pike (often thought of as the sharks of our rivers and lakes) and can quickly ruin angling stocks and decimate the breeding output of waterfowl.  They’re protected by law, and it’s illegal to harm them or capture them.

Killer whales are also mammals, and members of a family people love.  Killer whales are the largest of the dolphin family. Humans campaign to protect dolphins and badgers. We’re particularly drawn to warm-blooded creatures, especially those which are smaller than ourselves and are covered in fur. But don’t be misled; otters are killer furries!

Otter populations have grown due to planned reintroduction and habitat management, but despite being thought cuddly, they can weigh up to nine kilograms – about twenty pounds – and need to eat enough to maintain that weight. That means a diet heavy in freshwater fish, supplemented by birds, frogs and small mammals. They are certainly ‘red in tooth and claw’ and have even been known to kill and eat pet dogs and cats.  Attempting to cuddle or stroke an otter would be likely to get you bitten! Back in the 1950s and 60s they were on the brink of extinction, partly due to pollution of rivers and lakes but also the attempts of gamekeepers and anglers to kill them to protect fish and wildfowl stocks. 

On the plus side, they have reduced the unwanted numbers of American Signal Crayfish which infested our streams and rivers, displacing native freshwater crayfish, much as grey squirrels have seriously damaged the population of native red squirrels.  But human attempts to intervene in the natural balance of flora and fauna often have unforeseen results – like the old song about calling in a gas-man leading to the need to call in a series of other workers to repair the damage their various trades cause to each other’s work. 

We always talk about ‘nature’ as if we aren’t part of it ourselves.  When we look out at our

rolling Cotswold grasslands, grazed by flocks of sheep, we see a landscape created by farming. Just as we complain about the deforestation of South America for cattle farming, we are to blame for having destroyed most of England’s oak forests over hundreds of years to build the British Navy’s fleet. It’s impossible to imagine what consequences we might have avoided if our ancestors hadn’t done so. We are wrong to think that we are in control of it all. It is a mistake to take the Bible book of Genesis literally and believe that mankind has dominion over the Earth.

There’s a new fashion for planting wildflower meadows in public areas, including parks and roadside verges.  Of course, if they’re planted, they aren’t wild; but we like to pretend the beauty we see is natural, whilst we create artificial ‘habitat’ for plants and animals we used to try to eradicate! 

So, the truth is complicated.  Otters aren’t rotters.  Sharks, killer whales, and tigers aren’t rotters either.  They kill according to survival instincts – to feed themselves, bear young, and feed them too.    

We need to be very careful when we think we can ‘fix’ nature. Too often we break it.

We are the real rotters.

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