Saturday, 31 August 2019

Otters 40 years on

I have always had an interest in Otters, started I think when I read Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. This was on my first trip to Scotland in 1975 , although we didn't see any that year or for another few years.

I bought books on Otters, watched Tarka the Otter ( 1979) and On the Tracks on the Wild Otter with Hugh Miles (1987) which was based in Shetland. We even met the film crew when we were up in Yell on holiday and had a long conversation. The most recent book is the superb Otters in Shetland , a tale of the `draatsi' by Richard Shucksmith and Brydon Thomason

I attend a course at Preston Montford in 1978 , a field studies course on ID signs of Otters, and returned three times to take part in Otter surveys in Wales. Again we didn't see any otters but had plenty of signs along the rivers. It was all good stuff but at that time Otters were generally only seen at night in England and Wales, or so I was told.

The people running the course didn't even have photos of Otters but a few of the students did and these had been taken in daylight in Scotland.

So my first encounters of Otters happened in 1979, the first at Little Loch Broom. Along with three friends we camped on the hillside for a few days, miles from anywhere. It was a tremendous place for wildlife including Otters which we saw in the day swimming up and down the loch on a regular basis.

A few days after we went across to Handa and saw another two, I was bitten by the bug (well lots if you count the midges and mosquitos.

Another Otter up at Ullapool but this time distant and then nothing for a few years until we returned to Scotland. Back home to Sheffield, at that time had no suitable habitat until they started to clean up the rivers. Now Otters have been seen very close to the city centre.

Since moving to Shetland we have seen many but mostly at a distance but had a couple of close encounters. Shetland has the highest density of Otters in Europe with more than 1500 animals and they are very active throughout the day and night. Around Sandwick we have seen them around all the bays and also in Lerwick

Further north in Shetland the higher the density.

Anyway its a question of patience, I set out the other day to a good spot with three families close together along the shoreline. The wind wasn't in my favour blowing towards the sea but the tides was just falling, a good time to encounter these animals

Within 15 mins an Otter came out of its holt and moved across rocks and into the sea and then swam towards me.

It seem to ignore me even though my scent was blowing towards it and that I was only 25 feet away

I followed it down the coastline, it kept diving for food catching a few small fish and then disappeared.

I relocated it swimming back the other way and then onshore briefly before heading north.  Just at this time a small boat was being launched and two people were in conversation. The Otter stopped swimming and looked towards them.

After the boat left it came ashore and  worked its way back towards its holt but again returned to the sea before heading north again it went round the point, spooking a few gulls and then out of sight.

Talking to one of the locals I was told of another holt in a store shed , the otter here tends to ignore people as well.

Photographing Otters is never very easy, even in Shetland. Before this sighting the last three have been otters seen and photographed at a distance. A long lens 500mm+ would be ideal, then you can stay back. Otters cannot see well but can detect your presence if you are on the skyline, so stay low.

Otters have very good hearing, so a quiet shutter release should be used or even better a mirrorless camera.

The more you can study Otters the better chance to get some photos.

I will be returning to the place again, it was a great encounter

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