Otters - This Far and no Further...
Rod Sturdy has his say on what many consider to be the greatest threat angling, as we currently know it, has ever faced
This Far and no Further...
…should be our response when it comes to otters.
The otter genie is out of the bottle, as someone said recently. Otters are now here, and, like it or not, here to stay. The name of the game is now containment of the problem through active measures.
One of the fist things we should be pushing for is a ban on the actual release of otters. Encouraging them is one thing, but wilfully adding to the impact on an already strained environment is quite another.
The idealists and extremists of the environmental brigade have been actively releasing tame, hand-reared specimens into the wild. There have been many instances of these turning up, bold as brass and with no apparent fear of humans (unlike otters in the wild) by prime stretches of river and promptly helping themselves to a specimen barbel or two, taking a few bites and leaving the carcass on the bank.
It is all so reminiscent of the misguided animal rights extremists in the 1970’s who raided mink farms and released the occupants into the wild with absolutely no thought to the damage they would cause - or those who ‘liberated’ rainbow trout from stew ponds, resulting in the unfortunate fish being eaten by pike.
To be fair about this issue, I very much admire much of the work done by wildlife trusts and the like. Except when it comes to what appears to me to be their tunnel vision. In practice this means the one-sided promotion of predators, totally without regard to the fundamental question of what a given predatory species is going to eat. In the case of otters, their preferred food – the eel – has all but disappeared. And given that a large proportion of British rivers still fall below standards – in particular as regards fish stocks – as laid down in the European Water Quality Directive, food is at a premium. Bear in mind that an otter needs to eat approximately 15-20% of its body weight per day. And do not forget the otter’s endearing habit of killing large fish, and only taking a bite or two.
A friend of mine with his own short stretch of a prime chalkstream has on several occasions woken up to find that his garden has been adorned overnight with the mutilated corpse of a large salmon or carp. The large barbel of the upper Thames are now a thing of the past. It is nothing short of a crying shame that a fish which can take up to 15 years to reach specimen size can be wiped out within seconds.
Of course the idealistic, blinkered environmentalists will say that otters are truly part of the UK natural scene and must therefore at all costs be restored to their rightful place. This view takes no account of the fact that the otter’s preferred food has gone into near-terminal decline. The eel are now classified as ‘critically endangered’ and is on the ‘red list’ of species under severe threat. This fact is hardly ever mentioned in television wildlife programmes, which are always much more concerned with trumpeting the good news that the species which used to prey on eels is back in the land of the living and thriving out there in the so-called ‘wild’. But in reality it is the eel, not the otter, which is the prime indicator of the general state of the environment.
The existence of predators in any eco-system is of course a positive sign. It demonstrates that the environment is a rich one. And predation is one means of quickly weeding out unhealthy specimens of the prey species. Otters specifically will drive out, if not kill, mink. And the fact that mink are seen off will mean that water voles will enjoy a comeback.
But wilful (no other word will do) release of a predator into an eco-system when its preferred prey no longer exists makes no sense. It is like pretending to cure a disease by playing with the symptoms: if we give the patient a rosy complexion – a sure sign of a healthy individual – with a bit of make-up on his face, then he will be well again. It is equivalent to papering over the cracks when a building is suffering from severe structural damage.
This is in fact the main issue I have with the wildlife and bird lobbies. They generally cannot see beyond dry land. Whilst they strive ideally to think ‘landscape-wide’ (not my phrase – it has been used by Mr Chris Packham himself) they are certainly incapable of seeing the land – freshwater – sea – air system, the whole biosphere, as a complete, single and interdependent system. It is in fact the ailing and increasingly empty seas we should be focusing a great deal of our efforts on. Decline of migratory species like the eel and the Atlantic salmon really do deserve our serious attention. And in the case of eels and salmon it is anglers who represent a significant proportion of those agitating for proper research and remedies.
And in any case, other things have moved on considerably since otters went into severe decline in the middle of the last century. The human population has increased, and with it the proportion of us living in urban environments - as has ownership of cars. This all goes to explain the stories in the media of tame otters turning up in coffee shops and garden sheds, no doubt looking for a free meal. Certainly there have been instances of our whiskery friends raiding suburban garden ponds. And the otter road kill has now reached significant figures: at least 1,800 since 2007. I hope the criminals who released these unfortunate animals, with total disregard for official guidelines, are proud of their achievement.
So what should we be doing? Well, the first is to support the work that the Angling Trust is already doing on this issue. Specifically, this is:
• Pressing at a political level for a moratorium on release of otters into the countryside
• Persuading Natural England to actually publicise the fact that it is against release of otters
• Supporting angling clubs and organisations on issues such as provision of otter-proof fencing
Ideally, the Angling Trust should be doing much more on this matter. It should be:
• Funding more and better research on otters’ specifically to establish why some rivers tolerate the presence of otters, whilst others do not
• Employing a dedicated member of staff to liaise with affected fisheries
• Making sure that government money set aside for otter fencing is actually applied for (at present it is not, so there is no chance of it being increased!)
But to do all that it would need much more support and cash from the angling public – from you in other words.
Let me stress again: there is no longer such a thing as a ‘natural’ habitat. All environments in the developed world are actively shaped and managed. Angling is part of that management process. Anglers of my generation reading this can congratulate themselves as being associated with a pressure group (yes, we were a force to be reckoned with once…) which helped to bring about the general clean-up of Britain’s rivers. Creation of fisheries provides more than fish. It gives wildlife in general a breathing space. So we deserve more than a few seats at the table of environmental care. And the otter issue is one in which we should have a significant voice.
And at the same time our sport makes a significant contribution to the national economy. It is worth £3.5bn a year - another reason to defend it properly through its representative body.
Think about it, have a look at the Angling Trust website , join, and be counted.
By the Same Author
- The Angling Trust – What is it? And What has it Achieved?
- Bailiffing our Fisheries - The Battle Ahead
- Otters, Angling and the BBC - Amateurish, Inaccurate and Biased.
- British Trust for Ornithology
- Cormorants and Angling - An Open Letter to the RSPB
- Otters - This Far and no Further...
- Beavers and Us
- If I Really Wanted to Mess Things Up
- Drought, Yet Again...
- Angling Politics - There is no room for Complacency...