It is a fascinating and heart-warming story of how an otter was returned to the wild. Sebastian Oake reports on Oscar’s story.
It is an overcast afternoon in mid-November and the moment National Trust rangers Tim Bailey and Cassie Williams have been waiting for. After spending a final two weeks in a secure outdoor pen, getting used to the Yorkshire Dales weather, a rescued otter is being returned to the wild. It’s the culmination of a year’s work by wildlife experts.
Named Oscar by his keepers, the otter has enjoyed five-star care. Here at the head of a rocky gill in Langstrothdale at the heart of the Dales, he has been given a roomy enclosure with a purpose-built pond, a snug wooden hutch filled with hay and the promise of two large rainbow trout for dinner each day.
Just in case all this was not to Oscar’s liking, however, encouraging him to try to escape before his time, a complex of three fences – one of them carrying a mild electric pulse – was erected early on, placing a formidable barrier between him and the wider world.
But now the National Trust rangers have decided their work is done and Oscar is ready for release.
After tossing a final trout supper into the enclosure, they turn off the electric fence and start to peel back the plastic mesh to make an opening for Oscar.
Tim and Cassie don’t expect their otter to necessarily make a permanent home in the gill. These animals can travel a significant distance before setting up a territory that itself might encompass several miles of water course. Undoubtedly, the broad, bubbling waters of the River Wharfe will beckon and Oscar might then head either up or down stream. The supply of rainbow trout will, of course, be at an end but there will be plenty of crayfish, bullheads and perhaps native brown trout instead.
Although young, Oscar already has quite a story to tell. He was found as a helpless orphan cub near Hubberholme and taken to a local vet, who passed him on to the RSPCA. There he came into the experienced hands of Rob Scrivens, Wildlife Supervisor at Stapeley Grange Wildlife Centre in Cheshire, one of four RSPCA rescue centres in England that look after sick, injured, orphaned and confiscated wildlife. Rob has been with the RSPCA for 18 years and oversees all its otter rescue work.
Oscar was then sent to the New Forest Wildlife Park near Southampton to be hand-reared by dedicated staff.
“This phase of otter rehabilitation can take up to 12 months,” says Rob. “It reflects the time that the cub would normally be with its mother and allows the animal to grow to a sufficient size for it to be able to take care of itself and defend itself.”
When Oscar reached, as Rob puts it, “the age of independence”, it was back to the Yorkshire Dales and into the temporary pen in Langstrothdale. “We release all orphaned youngsters as close to where they came from as we can,” he explains.
Rehabilitation is a long and intensive process but one that both the RSPCA and the National Trust believe is well worth while. Despite otters being among the best loved of all our wildlife, things have not always been easy for them. In the middle of the 20th century, a devastating combination of toxic pesticides, persecution and loss of suitable habitat almost wiped them out across England.
They are slowly but surely returning to many areas, although they are still absent from parts of central and southern England. Now protected by law, they are classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
In the Yorkshire Dales their fortunes have risen dramatically. Twenty-five years ago there were probably none in the area. Now Cassie Williams estimates there could be as many as eight males with territories on the River Wharfe between the head waters of the river and the edge of the National Park near Bolton Abbey. Another pair have set up home on the trust’s estate at Malham Tarn.
Otters are well suited to a life in the water. They have webbed feet for swimming and their dense fur keeps their body core warm. They can even close their ears and nose when underwater. Hunting at night, they lie up during the day in riverbank holts. Except for mating, male otters lead a largely solitary life, while females start to produce families of one to four cubs or pups from the age of around two. All being well, otters live for up to ten years.
Back at the pen in Langstrothdale, Tim and Cassie have finished opening up the fence but something isn’t right. There’s no sign of Oscar stirring from the hutch. “He would normally have stuck his head out by now,” says Tim. Not even the alluring aroma of a fat trout just outside the hutch door seems to be having any effect.
They begin to speculate on whether Oscar is there at all. “He was in there last night,” says Cassie. “I’m not sure how he could have got out.”
“He’s quite a big beast, he would need a hole in the fence like this,” adds Tim, using his hands to suggest something the size of a melon. “I don’t really want to go over to the hutch and open the lid. If he’s in there, I might lose a few fingers.”
Eventually something has to be done. After quietly and carefully checking all possible hiding places, Tim and Cassie conclude he really isn’t there. Although otters generally bite through things rather than climb over them, he does seem to have found his own way out leaving little evidence in the process.
“I think we can say this has been a success,” says Tim, although it’s clear he and Cassie are disappointed their role has ended before they expected it to. Two large rainbow trout a day notwithstanding, Oscar has answered the call of the wild himself.
Sebastian Oake may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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