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02/08/2010 Archived Entry: "Otters"

Me and my younger brother and sister with our dog, Bruce

Me and my younger brother and sister with our dog, Bruce

One enduring memory from my childhood is exploring the banks of the River Esk at Glaisdale where it flows between East Arncliffe Wood and Limber Hill Wood deep in the North York Moors. In hindsight it might have been considered a great danger to a small boy, particularly because there was a deep part of the river known as Dead Manís Pool. A man was said to have died there after either falling or jumping from a cliff. I never discovered whether the tale was true.
Being a country-bred lad I was aware of the dangers and spent many happy hours by the river, always accompanied by our family dog, Bruce. He was a golden retriever and loved to swim, hunt and forage along the banks. We were good pals and went everywhere together, with him flushing out birds and animals on the way. Those outings were magical and our journeys of exploration helped to fan my interest in all matters relating to the natural world along with its folklore, legends and history.
The River Esk is renowned as a premier salmon and trout river and in Arncliffe Wood there was a trout hatchery supervised by my grandfather who was water bailiff for that stretch of water. Sometimes Bruce and I would join him to see the various stages of growth of those tiny fish. They were used for re-stocking the Esk and my grandfather seemed to know a great deal about them and their behaviour. Trout were present in the river the whole time but adult salmon were migratory, returning here from the sea in spring, to spawn in late autumn.
With such an abundance of fish it is not surprising that the Esk was also the haunt of otters. During my excursions with Bruce we would find dead salmon on the banks with chunks bitten from their bodies Ė whether that was the work of otters, I cannot be certain. I was mere child at the time.
However, to counteract the impact of the otters upon the fish stocks, my village had its own otter hunt because otters were then (in the 1940s) regarded as pests and had to be controlled. During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, however, otters began to decline, not merely in the Esk but elsewhere. This was not due to hunting but to loss of their natural habitat and the increased use of insecticides on farmland, in particular dieldrin and aldrin. These impregnated the earth and water courses to such an extent that many creatures, including otters and birds of prey were poisoned.
The catastrophic reduction in otter numbers led to otter hunts, including the one at Glaisdale, voluntarily ending their activities. The decline became of great debate and in the 1980s animal welfare organisations, conservation groups and individual landowners worked towards conservation of otters and also to outlaw or control certain chemical pesticides and insecticides, especially dieldrin and aldrin.
An attempt was also made to lure otters from wilder parts of the country that had been free from the effects of the insecticide, such as Scotland, and persuade them to migrate south to rivers in northern England - the Ure, Tyne, Eden, Irving and Lune among them. Otters were known to travel up to 40 kilometres, around 25 miles, in their search for food. It was thought some might be tempted to move their homes if artificial holts were constructed while some otters were deliberately introduced to selected rivers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, with their environment now much safer, otters staged a spectacular revival throughout the country. It has been so successful that angling clubs, fish farms and similar enterprises are now blaming otters for depletion of their stocks to such an extent they could be forced out of business.
The problem is that if otters are introduced to a river there must be sufficient and sustained stocks of fish, especially eels, for them to feed on. In some cases, the increase in otters has depleted fish stock so much that the otters either starve to death or they turn to hunting in fish farms and breeding lakes. One expert has warned that otters can empty a lake of breeding fish within days.
So once again, the plight of otters is very real. The argument continues as anglers and fish farmers call for a cull, while conservationists assert that the presence of otters indicates the excellent health of the rivers.

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