There is currently on facebook a discussion about otters. This was precipitated by the discovery by Geoff Maynard and I of a comprehensively ‘ottered’ 20lb carp at a lake near Hereford – nothing too unusual about that of course, but Geoff took a shot and put it on FB for all to see. This prompted Ken Stokes to submit his well-considered words on the wider subject of what constitutes ‘natural’, ‘indigenous’ and ‘wild’ – almost too good a piece for the rather ephemeral nature of facebook and close enough to the sentiments expressed by Geoff back in 2010 which I reproduce here. I think it’s a superb article and, of course, it’s even more relevant after another 7-8 years of otter proliferation.

I’m told that I’m not a lot of good when it comes to being diplomatic. So I apologise now for upsetting some people. That’s not the object of this piece but it is bound to happen because I can’t see any way around it. So here goes…

The best fisheries I know of are those with bailiffs and riverkeepers who protect the fisheries and banksides. The worst fisheries I know are those with no controls. Maybe you have a different experience but that’s mine.

If I look at fisheries I visit, I don’t see ‘nature’ as nature intended. I see a manufactured environment more resembling a garden than the chaos which is true nature. Our rivers and stillwater fisheries are nothing like what they would be had man never interfered. We dam and dredege and channelise and canalise our rivers, put in weirs and lock gates then stock them to the point where they are totally artificial, in much the same way that gardens are. The lakes and stillwaters? Well, many of them we created from scratch, farm ponds, estate lakes, sand and gravel pits, reservoirs etc. So our waters are really not Natural in any real sense. They are creations, like gardens.

There is an argument that the theory of evolution determines that there actually is no such thing as a balance of nature. Because how could creatures evolve in a balance? Unless perhaps that balance is a state arrived at only after aeons of evolution – and is so delicate that any interference will upset that balance and promote more evolution. Man has never been gentle in his interference.

There is definitely no ‘balance of nature’ in a garden. Gardeners don’t allow it. They spray and weed, protect and manage the crops and flowerbeds. Man manipulates nature to effect a result that humans, who are the ultimate apex predators, prefer. If we allow nature loose in a garden, the weeds and slugs soon take over. Similarly, if we allow nature to run our fisheries, the strong will eat the weak and…. that will be the end of it. No balance. We know this because we have already experienced it. Just look at our oceans if you want some fishy examples.

The reason there are no herring shoals left in the North Sea is because an apex predator was allowed to devour and kill as much of the stocks as it wanted to, unchecked. Look at the cod fishery on the Grand Banks. Wiped out by the same apex predator who proclaimed that the “balance of nature” would replenish the stocks and repair the damage.

But it didn’t. Nature didn’t balance. The cod never returned to the Grand Banks nor the herring to the North Sea. Nor the schools of 1000lb tunny which fed on those vast herring shoals. The port of Grimsby, once home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the world, today has no commercial fishing operations. Scarborough, only eighty or ninety years ago the big-game fishing capital of Europe, could today be the British Ft Lauderdale, home of marinas full of big-game fishing boats. Instead it’s just, well, Scarborough. Another angling desert.

There are lessons here. In less than a hundred years an unchecked apex predator has stripped the planet of 90% of its fish stocks. Will nature balance this rape of the planet’s resources? Perhaps, given tens of thousands of years. But we don’t have that kind of time. In the shorter term, only careful farming, gardening and management of these resources can have any affect.

I’m not suggesting that we stop all commercial fishing in the ocean, or that we kill all the apex predators, that would be daft – but I do strongly believe we need to have very strict controls over their activities. This includes otters. Having no controls over predation in waters where stocks are fragile is simply throwing those stocks away and creating fish deserts, like the North Sea and the Grand Banks. To those who say there will never be controls for otters – well, there were once, and history does have a habit of repeating itself.

We are told there are now a couple of thousand otters out there. We call them apex predators, and protect them. And many conservation-minded anglers say ‘Quite right too’. Something inside me wants to agree with this viewpoint – after all, we all love to experience the heart-in-mouth thrill of seeing precious wildlife like this at the waters edge – but conservation is a double edged sword. Conserving a fishery means not allowing it to be ravaged by uncontrolled predation, from any source. If these 2000 apex predators were not otters, but, say, human predators from Eastern Europe – fishing 24 hour days, 365 days and nights a year, destroying every fish they caught, not just for food but also for practice or fun or some other reason we can’t begin to comprehend – I doubt we would display the same tolerance many today show for otter predations. Yes that’s emotive talk but I also think it’s pretty accurate.

If we are to talk about a balance, we cannot ignore discussing the checks required to bring about that balance. Because nature will not achieve anything like it without a big helping hand from man.

I have to emphasise, this piece is a personal opinion and almost certainly not shared by some FM members nor by its staff. Feel free to shoot me down in the forums if you have a different take on things. You never know, you might convert me!

Geoff Maynard

BUT HANG ON….this is the Ken Stokes article that started the thread…

This is a post for mainly my angling friends, but hopefully might add something to highlight a growing and fractious issue within the angling and otter supporting communities for some of my non angling friends.

It is about the predation affecting UK freshwater fisheries, but mainly about the otter. Heralded as a major environmental success story, yet anglers in large numbers are kicking off about this big time. Now I don’t want to be misunderstood on this, not ALL anglers are upset about our friend tarka, but the number who are seems to be increasing at an alarming rate. My angling buddies, least a lot of them, know why, but I know many not involved in angling may not even understand there is an issue at all. The truth is that most anglers get involved in fishing BECAUSE they are interested in being in the great outdoors and love observing nature. It’s certainly why I became interested as a child. For for my non angling friends, please understand this fractious debate in the angling world is driven by desire to see fisheries and habitats prosper.

It’s my belief and for many others that the otter, in conjunction with other predators, is becoming a major threat to many fisheries, but more importantly, the ecology of many of our rivers and lakes. I want to make clear now that I’m absolutely NOT advocating the slaughter of any species, but I do believe that to say the growth of predators in the UK IS becoming a massive issue and needs serious consideration is no understatement. I’ve seen literally hundreds of pics of ‘ottered’ fish and particularly large carp, large barbel and pike. I am aware of fisheries that anglers have abandoned due to over predation.

I posted these comments on a fellow anglers post (Geoff Maynard) regarding a post he did about a fishery where he has witnessed the death of fish due to otter predation. I hope these comments help to explain some of the issues and dispel some of the myths repeated so often they are taken as gospel.

Nature balances…
.. no matter how you say it this is actually NOT what really happens. Nature doesn’t balance, it evolves, changes, adapts, it always has. It is in fact the basis of Darwin’s theories. Now it maybe that in environments largely unaltered or influenced by human activity (where?) or natural catastrophe, that change maybe very slow, but change it does. Something the ‘nature balances’ devotees need to understand. The habitat will not revert back to some utopian human vision of what the environment was, based on a misconstrued idea of what it was like, at some unspecified point in time years ago. Least not just because someone thinks that is what nature will do on auto pilot. It won’t. Man has encroached on that environment in the UK exponentially. Things have been changed… a lot.

Wild nature…
Next, the concept of nature being wild. In the UK at least, every inch of land is managed, badly or well, but managed it is. In the UK even so called nature reserves are like that because of human management. Even on RSPB reserves lakes are stocked with fish to feed fish eating birds (bittern for instance) and rear Aberdeen Angus cattle, deer are culled (aka farmed). Now I’m not saying this is bad, but people need to understand what the word ‘wild’ actually means in the context of the UK. Our rivers and waterways are mostly artificially stocked. Due to pollution, abstraction and intensive farming our rivers are far from natural, improved in some ways maybe, but many do not have naturally sustaining fish populations.

Native and so called non native species…
We hear of the undesirability of non native species. Now I’m going to be devils advocate here. Now considering that nature adapts, changes and evolves, thanks largely to human intervention we have a whole range of creatures and plants etc that have established in the UK, surely that adaptation IS nature at work?? Not ‘balancing’ as we, humans, might like or want, but it is nature at work. Now when we, humans, say ooh that is non native and undesirable, if our arbiter is that it wasn’t here before, exactly what timeline are we alluding to?? That mythical past of pleasant and green when everything was just right?? To give examples, we don’t like mink because they are non native, but we love otter because they are considered native. We don’t like signal crayfish, but love white clawed for the same reasoning.. we hate potatoes because …, getting tricky ..oh and we love Rhododendrons? See where this is going? Why aren’t we trying to re introduce burbot? I’m not saying we should by the way! We, humanity, pick and choose the nature we want to..err, balance?? This is starting to look a bit shaky isn’t it?

This discussion is not about native or non native. Nature does NOT make those distinctions?? We do.

This is bio politics.
In my opinion that should be the framework for these discussions. Now when it comes to otter and mink, the mink has been and is demonised because it’s ‘non native’, it made a niche in our managed countryside and for sure it can be considered vermin easily if that is how we perceive it, it’s even a bit rat like in appearance sadly for the mink. Now part of why it established is surely in part due to the demise of the otter (man’s use of pesticides that caused sterilisation in otter). Otter though look cute so we like Tarka. In fact the public love 💕 Tarka. Otter are bigger than mink, a full grown mink about 1.5kg, but a big dog otter about 10kg. Mink eat smaller prey items, otter can handle much bigger prey as well as smaller prey. So otter can target big fish, other mammals and birds that are beyond the scope of the mink. So otter can eat the big breeding fish, the females..kill swans and heron and a whole range of creatures mink can’t handle. Before anyone screams no. Yes, otter can and do eat waterfowl including swans and heron. So when fish stocks get low..

The issues, surely, should be about bio diversity, about having some sort of balance or equilibrium perhaps, but I’d argue that so called balance or equilibrium is impossible in an environment and habitat largely managed by humans without human intervention.

A few thoughts about otter. When otter were more plentiful before their demise in the 60’s they were managed, that meant regular culls. Now I’m not advocating a return to packs of otter hounds, but we have to accept that the otter is an apex predator and unchecked no one actually knows what will happen with the otter population in the UK. Forget historical context about otter territories. I’d argue we do not know what the future will bring. Mink are considered vermin, they can legally be trapped and killed. Carp are branded non native in the otter debate because it suits as a way of deflecting issues about otter decimating many of the UK’s fresh water fisheries and because carp anglers have made a lot of noise about fish kills. The carp has been present in the UK since at least Roman occupation. So not sure about this non native argument. However, the issues also affect stocks of larger (breeding females) of barbel, chub salmon and pike etc on rivers.

The issues with otter predation are not going to go away. The otter population is growing and impact on fisheries; fish stocks, water fowl and other mammals and amphibians will increase. Surely, like or not, that is inevitable?

The issue surely should be about considering the otters place in a holistic way, a pre occupation with only some species can’t be good. The otter is here to stay, but how is the question, especially in the broader context of freshwater pollution and the range of predation from other species as well as otter, cormorant, goosander, poaching, salmon farming and water extraction etc etc.

At the end of the day, Mr and Mrs Tarka, even if they are popular with the public and poster boy for the EA and RSPB, mostly have fish to eat because anglers pay for them. Bio politics..

So in conclusion, least for now, I love to see wildlife, big fish of course, I’m a fisherman, but I also love to see other wildlife and that includes otter.

However, for me this needs to be about promoting as diverse an ecology as possible. Not a love of a single species to the extent that others, vital components in a, dare I say after my comments about balance, a well managed habitat, in effect balanced 😉 habitat. A habitat that is looked after, invertebrates to the largest fish and mammals.

Also regarding anglers, I believe those who scream kill ‘em need to wind in their necks, yes we need action, but I believe we need to work with others with vested interests in the environment and especially come together as a coherent and respectful angling lobby body and frankly I believe The Predation Action Group and the Angling Trust offer the best scope and have already done considerable work in this field.

I do not support ill concieved splinter groups that take action that divides the angling community rather than bringing together for the common good of not just angling, but frankly all who have an interest in a diverse and well managed countryside.

A bit of further reading for those interested in considering the bigger picture and predation including the other issues……

Ken Stokes.

To comment on either of these articles, go to…