To the untrained eye, the sight of a riverbank elicits little excitement and most of us would walk past its pockmarked sludgy shores and knotty tangles of roots with little intrigue. To an ecologist, on the other hand, these overlooked stretches of land are fascinating biological canvases which can act as windows into understanding the steady return of one of our most iconic wild creatures: the otter.
Responsible for inspiring heroic characters like Tarka (who has been in continuous print since his debut in 1928) and eponymising one of our local brews (Otter Ale), it’s fair to say these stout, silken creatures have long captured our imagination. There are several reasons why otters have earnt such a beloved reputation over the years, one of which is their curious appearance. Furnished with a thick, rudder-like tail and a set of fantastical webbed-feet, otters exhibit an enchanting exoticism that’s rare in these pleasant lands. Luring us in further is their allusive nature; otter’s prefer to hunt under the protective anonymity of dusk and are able to seamlessly slip into the waters below at any moment, meaning they seldom cross paths with mankind. Behind all the mystique, however, the otter has an important story to tell, and one which is allegorical to the troubles faced by much of our wildlife over the past century.
Initially the otter’s misfortune came during the 17th century, when millions of acres of earth were ploughed and vast forests felled to help feed the hungry mouths of Britain’s expanding population. A second challenge came at the turn of the 20th century with the popularisation of otter hunting, a brutal practice that prompted the steady culling of many wild otters across the country. It was not until the advent of organochlorides in the 1950s, however, that the otter’s experience reached its true nadir. By 1955 three revolutionary chemicals, dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor, became readily available in farming and industry and promised to cure a variety of issues from corn-rot to unwelcome wool parasites. Amidst the frenzied drive for productivity the ecological impacts of these new ‘wonder-treatments’ was little discussed. Unfortunately, the effects were catastrophic; insect populations were the first hit, in-turn prompting a dramatic drop in the numbers of other small invertebrates and fish. The otter—usually placed comfortably at the top of the food chain—was inevitably hit too by this domino decline, and it wasn’t long until the once cherished furry creatures were left to go hungry. One survey conducted by the Environment Agency between 1977-79 found evidence of otter habitation at a mere 6% of sites known to house the species two decades earlier, indicating the total ecological collapse underway within our river systems.
Various pollutants used during this period were also thought to have directly harmed the health of otters, and studies reveal their potential damage to the otters reproductive system and eyesight. The greatest tragedy of this ecocide was its invisible nature and it wasn’t until the carcasses of larger emaciated mammals like otters began appearing along riversides that the sheer level of destruction was recognised—unfortunately much of the damage had been done. The rivers that were once bursting arteries of life had soon become bleak channels of poison cutting across our countryside.
Despite their turbulent history, the story of the otter, isn’t all negative and slowly but surely they are showing signs of repopulating our river banks once more. Rather amazingly, the species has clawed its way back from teetering on the edge of extinction and now shows signs of activity in all 27 counties in England. The rivers in and around the Marshwood Vale are also enjoying this heart-warming return and recent sightings indicate otters are present along various stretches and tributaries of the Asker, Char, Brit and Axe.
The promise of restoring healthy otter numbers back to our rivers has only been possible, however, with a great deal of patience and perseverance. Although the most harmful pollutants were banned back in 1984, their sheer potency means it took decades for some rivers to run clear and invite the surrounding wildlife back—and many still haven’t. The work of dedicated conservationists has also been instrumental in allowing life to return to our waterways. The Axe Vale Rivers Association (or AVRA for short), has been working tirelessly with local farmers, fishermen and landowners to try to restore the health of the various waters emptying into the River Axe. AVRA’s mission is to tackle the endemic issue of water pollution from the bottom-up, hoping to create several wildlife sanctuaries at sites along the Axe’s smaller tributaries, such as Seaborough Brook and the River Synderford, and hopes to exemplify how river management should occur across the area as a whole. The focus of AVRA’s work lies beneath the surface of these bubbling brooks and within an initiative to repopulate the native Sea Trout to healthy numbers (despite their misleading name, Sea Trout undertake a remarkable journey upstream during the winter to spawn in various lofty brooks).
The beating heart of AVRA’s project lies under a rather unassuming corrugated shelter—which resembles somewhat of a mad (but brilliant) scientist’s shed—straddling a pristine stream in the Axe Valley. Here AVRA’s knowledgeable volunteers provide continual care for some 40,000 resident Sea Trout fry which squirm around enthusiastically in various incubation tanks. The process is remarkably scientific; the water must maintain a refreshing 8.5 degrees and the tanks regularly cleaned to mimic the conditions of the babbling brook they would naturally develop in. After several months of careful nurturing the fry are then released along carefully chosen stretches of streams, with the hope to rejuvenate both their population, and in-turn the populations of numerous species like the otter and kingfisher who enjoy them as food. Alongside this, the charity is also undertaking work to inspire a younger generation of mindful conservationists, and involves several local schools within the hatchery project in the hope that our children can learn from the mistakes of our past. Of course, in an ideal world, organisations like AVRA shouldn’t need to exist, however, without the more positive intervention of man to help restore the balance in our rivers, there is little hope that creatures like the otter would ever recover.
Although it’s looking up, the future of the otter remains precarious and they face ongoing challenges of urban development and various other pollutants—notably the overuse of slurry within the dairy industry. However, with the help of community action, conscientious farming methods and a heightened sensitivity towards our wildlife, perhaps we can all hope for a time when catching a joyous glimpse of an otter isn’t limited to TV screens and zoo enclosures.