FEATURE: Buckingham sees the return of the otter

Library image of an otter
Library image of an otter

While some welcome them to our waterways with open arms, other residents have raised concerns.

What are the consequences of this furry renaissance?

Gentle curiosity or whiskered menace?

A yardstick against which to measure environmental purity, or a harbinger of destruction for other resident species of birds and fish?

The Eurasian otter has returned to Buckingham, with murmurs of sightings on the Great River Ouse turning into widely-shared photos of entire families.

And, to some, they’re very welcome here.

For others, otters, like mink, are known as an apex predator and strain on the ecosystem - “decimating” stocks of fish and creating an “imbalance” in our waterways.

So, is it true that the otters are returning in their droves?

And, if so, is this cause for celebration or panic?

Female Eurasian otters look after their cubs while the male will have a much bigger home rang, which covers a few females.

The young stay with their mother for a year to a year and three months, so don’t always breed every year.

“For this reason it is impossible for them to increase in number quickly in spite of the fact that we often read that they are “flooding” back into the countryside. This is impossible,” explains Grace Yoxon.

Grace is the director of the International Otter Survival Fund, a charity seeking to protect and conserve otters wherever they may be, throughout the world.

She says that, despite an upturn in otter sightings owed to community efforts to care for their waterways, Eurasian otters are still a vulnerable species.

Grace said: “Otters are being seen more but that doesn’t mean that there are many more of them.

“Our otter is the Eurasian otter and they do not go around in groups.

“The main thing about otters is that they are a great ambassador to a healthy environment.

“They use both the land and the water and so both have to be in good condition and that is important for all species, including our own.

“This means that if they are returning then our environmental conditions must have improved.

“In areas where otters have disappeared completely it has had a negative impact on the environment.

“For example where sea otters disappeared it resulted in an increase in starfish which destroyed the kelp forests.

“There has to be a balance in nature.

“As to numbers of otters, these are largely based on spraint (dropping) surveys and this gives no indication of numbers.

“As with seeing otters, people are usually seeing the same animal but interpret it as “lots of otters”.

“Similarly if there is a lot of spraint they think there are a lot of otters but we all know how much comes out of the back end of an animal.”

Are the otters that we do come across a threat to their environment?

Grace added: “Most of the people who call otters “vermin” are fishermen, and yet if the water conditions are improving that has to be good for fish too.

“They are definitely no danger to pets but people should never approach a wild otter as it will act like any animal which feels threatened.

“Fisherman, however, will argue that they themselves are environmentalists, in tune with rivers like the Great Ouse, casting both a line and a watchful eye over the habitats they operate in.

“They also contribute to an environments development, controlling and adding to fish stocks for the benefit of wildlife and their own interests.

A Buckingham fisherman told The Advertiser that, whilst they didn’t wish any harm to otters, the animals “decimate fish stocks and kill lots of birds, feeding as much as they can.”

Grace recognises that otters can get into private ponds and interfere with fish that people are legally entitled to own.

She said: “One problem with otters and fisheries is the increase in carp ponds.

“We do appreciate that koi carp are very expensive and so can understand that people get angry when they disappear to an otter.

“However, they are not native, unlike the otter.

“The thing is that a lot of ponds and angling lakes have come into existence when there were no otters around and so they didn’t put any precautions in to keep them out.

“Now that otters are beginning to return the fishermen don’t like it, but really it is their responsibility to protect their stock.

“There are a lot of very responsible fishermen who do just that but there are also others who just want to get rid of the otter as it is simpler.”

Buckingham is home to responsible fisherman and, although they do not harbour unwarranted aggression towards otters, they are concerned that the animal will not be properly controlled as it is reintroduced.

n We have approached the otter in Buckingham for comment, but he was not available for reply before our deadline.

Not content with sitting online and watching people share pictures of otters in Buckingham, I wanted to spend an afternoon attempting to snap one myself.

I walked from the Advertiser’s new office at the University of Buckingham, where I work on Wednesdays and Fridays, towards the town centre.

I know Buckingham’s river is well-maintained, after following the river-rinsers one morning in September, and thought I would start at Cornwalls Meadow.

I stood and tried to spy a mammal from the bridge behind the car park, but saw no activity on the riverbanks.

Walking through Bourton Park I peered into the grass hoping for any hint of damp fur, but wasn’t finding much.

I spoke to a couple walking their dog; they considered my task with incredulity.

“I’ve never seen any and we walk this way into town.

“I guess we’re not always actively looking, but you’d hope an otter isn’t something we would miss regularly.”

I was looking for that signature ‘powerful body’ and the pale grey-brown fur, broad snout and chest, and adorable face.

I thought I’d Google for some tips on how best to spot them.

Otters are apparently mostly nocturnal and it was 1:45pm.

“I had a nice walk, though.”