This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For my main blog please click HERE .
Scotland is an internationally significant area for the European otter (Lutra lutra). The large majority of the UK’s otter population exists in Scotland, concentrated around coastal areas of the Highlands and islands.
“The otter is 90 percent water, 10 percent God”. I can’t recall who originally said this, but it often comes to mind when I’m photographing or watching otters. Is there another mammal in the UK which can merge in and out of its environment so seamlessly? The memory of seeing my first otter is still very fresh, the sight of Loch Etive’s glassy still waters being parted by a strong, whiskered jaws. It swam past me before climbing onto the shore, and then just appeared to melt into the seaweed. Otters are animals that have us spellbound at their ability to elude, to disappear, and to silently move through the landscape un-noticed.
An Unbalanced Relationship
Unfortunately, like almost all of the predators found in the UK, our relationship with otters is one that turned sour for most of the 20th Century. From the 1950’s onwards otters declined dramatically throughout England and Wales, not to mention large areas of the rest of Western Europe. The decline was so severe that by the 1970’s otters were almost absent from some parts of England. Threats had come to otters on all sides – habitat destruction, hunting, disturbance and an increase in road traffic. However it was probably the introduction of of organocholorine pesticides in the 1950’s which had the greatest impact. Pesticide run-off from fields into rivers accumulated in the tissues of top predators such as otters, adversely affecting their physiological systems but crucially reducing their ability to breed. Scotland remained a haven for otters throughout this decline, the remote coastlines and rivers affected far less by human influence. Otter numbers in England and Wales are now far more healthy as a result of targetted re-introductions, legal protection, cleaner rivers and the banning of of organocholorine pesticides. However Scotland still holds the large majority of the UK’s otter population, possibly as much as 90%, with the coastal areas of the Highlands and Islands remaining the main strongholds.
An otter feeding on a lumpsucker fish on the East coast of Skye.
Otters are found throughout Scotland in both coastal and freshwater habitats, including in some urban areas. The coasts can support higher population densities, and it is Shetland that holds the highest numbers of otters in the UK. Here ‘dratsies’ are widespread and locally common, with some islands such as Yell being a magnet for wildlife photographers. The Isles of Mull and Skye are also well-known for their otters, as are some freshwater rivers such as the Spey and the Dee. In general the otters found on the West coast are less shy and more easily seen than other otters in the UK, and are regularly active throughout daylight and often seen from the roadside. I have otters within only a few hundred yards of my house on the Black Isle in Ross-shire, but they are shy and largely nocturnal, weeks often passing between sightings. I have put in many hundreds of hours of effort towards photographing my local otters, yet I’ve still never had encounters to match those that I’ve had on Skye or in Lochaber.
In Scotland the majority of otters are coastal, preferring rocky, sea-weed covered shores close to a source of fresh water.
Continuing Threats and Conservation
Despite the healthy recovery of the UK’s otters, they still face numerous threats and it wouldn’t take much to tip the balance against their favour once again. Habitat loss remains a big issue, with healthy rivers and sources of freshwater essential for an otter’s survival. Road casualties unfortunately are a high cause of mortality even in remote areas of the Highlands, as is drowning in fishing nets or lobster pots. Otter population dynamics are fragile, with the death of a single female otter having the potential to affect an entire local population. Otters have been the focus of some huge conservation efforts in the UK, and have been protected since the late 1970’s. The otter is a European Protected Species and is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). It is illegal to deliberately kill, capture, injure or disturb an otter, as is disturbing or damaging their holts or breeding areas.
‘A shape as fluid as water’.
Watching otters in Scotland
As a wildlife photographer, no other species obsesses me so as the otter. Every high quality otter image that I have feels precious and hard-won, and even now I can find myself trembling with excitement when I’m photographing an otter as close quarters. Sometimes I have to remind myself that for many wildlife watchers, a glimpse is the most they’ll ever get of these famously elusive creatures. Luck can play a major role – the first time I visited the Isle of Mull I was rewarded with close-up views of an otter within minutes of getting off the ferry. It was swimming around only a few metres offshore outside the village shop in Craignure, and a few of us all stood quietly and watched smiling for a few minutes. Yet it took me two years of living on the West coast of Scotland before I ever saw my first otter. To maximise your chances, the winter is the best time of year to look for otters as they are forced to spend more time hunting to survive the colder temperatures. A rising tide is usually best and ideal places to look are sheltered areas of coastline with sea-weed covered rocky shores, preferably close to the outlet of a river or stream. Watching otters is a wonderful experience but their welfare must always come first, and to disturb them is not only illegal, it can also be damaging. To get the kind of close images that I’ve featured in this blog post requires adept and highly specific field-craft, research and a great deal of patience. Sometimes it is good to put the camera down and just watch these remarkable mammals.