Celebrating the return of otters through art

Artist Robert Fuller tells how he went on a mission to Jura in search of inspiration to mark good news about a beautiful animal.

When I heard the news that there are now otters on every river in the country, I was so pleased because otters are a barometer of the health of our waterways.

These shy animals came dangerously close to extinction in the 1970s and at one time they had all but disappeared from England.

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Harmful pesticides, a dwindling food supply and legalised hunting for their fur and for sport brought these creatures to the brink of extinction.

Their survival in Yorkshire is down to just small group of committed conservationists who released 25 rescued wild otters onto the rivers Derwent and Esk in the early 1990s.

And their continuing success in Yorkshire is largely down to the efforts of the Environment Agency and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to improve the water quality of our rivers and boost fish stocks.

When given the choice, an otter prefers eels over fish and so the YWT hopes to boost the numbers of this favoured food so that they are less of a threat to anglers.

The YWT is undertaking an ambitious project to improve all of Yorkshire waterways by planting areas of wet woodland grass in order to reduce the flow of mud running off arable fields and silting-up the chalk riverbeds.

Fish and eels rely on this gravel bed to spawn. And a culture of ‘green engineering’ is being adopted which favours natural materials such as willow and hazel hurdles to shore up eroded riverbanks.

Even anglers, traditionally the otter’s greatest rival, have begun to help in the effort. One fisherman in Driffield has discovered, by analysing otter droppings, that these fish- eating predators are mainly feasting on bullheads and are in this instance not in direct competition with his hobby.

The trouble with otters is that they can’t resist the lure of an easy meal and pond owners and commercial fisheries complain bitterly about the way they can devastate stocks – often just taking one bite out of a valuable species such as a carp and then discarding the remainder.

Some coarse fishing lakes have built perimeter fences to safeguard their fish and dig sacrificial ponds outside this enclosure which they stock to divert otters.

But despite the resounding success of these conservation efforts and the controversy that otters cause, they are still quite tricky animals to spot.

In fact, this is the reason that there are no current statistics on the otter population in the UK. Surveys can only conclude if otters are present or absent from an area by their tracks or spraints, the name given to the droppings they leave to mark out territories.

I often see such signs but only rarely enjoy a fleeting glimpse of an otter.

That’s not to say that it isn’t possible to see them. Anglers see them regularly. But you have to put in a lot of hours by a river.

This year I was determined to paint an otter as my contribution to their remarkable survival story.

I had reports of otters along the River Derwent and it didn’t take me long to find its holt. I set up a camera trap, as otters are largely nocturnal, to get an idea of its habits. But after a fruitless year of trying, I only got one photograph of its rear end.

Otters are equally at home in the sea and are often much easier to spot there.

So I headed to Islay, a beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland for a week. I have visited eight times before and it teams with wildlife, especially otters, hares, deer and geese.

Looking for otters can be both time-consuming and frustrating as they can lie up and sleep for hours between feeds and have large territories.

I decided to start at the spot that I had seen otters on previous trips.

The weather forecast for the week wasn’t great and rain was due on the first day, but otters don’t mind getting wet so I packed some waterproofs and prepared for an early start. I was out of the door by 5am feeling enthusiastic, in spite of the driving rain.

I headed to Bunnahabhain, a bay on the east of the island, where the sea was calm.

Heavy rain meant I could barely see through the windscreen, so I walked down to a rocky outcrop instead.

But there was an offshore wind and I knew that if there were any otters here they would smell me.

Less than a mile across the bay is the island of Jura. I decided that I’d be better off there, where the wind would be in the opposite direction. The car ferry was just a few miles away so I got the 8am ferry across.

Jura turned out to be a much better wet weather plan. There was a two-mile stretch of road running right next to the shore which I drove up and down scanning with my binoculars while I waited for the rain to stop.

I was getting drenched through the open window and so I decided that, since I was getting wet anyway, I’d be better off on foot.

I headed towards some outcrops of rock, from which I could see for half a mile in each direction. The day passed very slowly and I have to admit my spirits were beginning to dampen. I had a few false alarms which turned out to be seals. But I did see some gannets and even a pair of sea eagles.

By 5.45pm I had spent almost 12 hours looking for otters without success and I needed a break. I had just got back into the car for a well-earned cup of tea when I heard a crunching noise. Turning I saw a flick of a tail from behind a large rock on the shore, just 20 yards away.

At last. An otter. I was all fingers and thumbs getting hold of my camera as the otter emerged from behind the rock with a dogfish, which it started to eat in front of me.

As luck would have it, it stopped raining at precisely the moment that I was able to get some photographs.

As my camera focussed, I was struck by the way the otter’s broad webbed feet spanned the slippery rock. Its long whiskers were still dripping with water.

As my shutter clicked, the otter paused for a second and peered directly down the lens. It was great. This was what all the waiting had been about.

I watched it finish and then slip effortlessly back into the water. I abandoned the car, grabbed my tripod and camera and followed it on foot. It wasn’t long before it caught another, much smaller snack-sized fish.

I followed the otter for three quarters of a mile as it hunted. It caught almost 10 small fish but ate each one in the water. At one point I was just 10 metres away as it dived down. The water was crystal clear and I could see its sinuous body lines as it negotiated the rocks and seaweed.

But my viewing came to an abrupt end as I reached the point where a stream met the sea. The stream was four foot deep and fast flowing and I watched as the otter disappeared out of sight.

I looked at my watch. It was 6.15pm – the last ferry! I ran back to the car and arrived at the port at precisely 6.30pm – just as it pulled into the jetty.

On the short sea crossing back to Islay I couldn’t help but wonder what the otter was doing. Encouraged, I was back at the ferry for 6.30am the next morning and by 10.30am I had spotted the same otter.

The sea was calm but it was still difficult to keep track of it. It was travelling quite a long way between dives and I could tell it was diving deep since it popped up like a cork each time it came up to the surface.

I followed it for a mile but it stayed out at sea catching small fish and eating them there. I eventually lost it near the ferry terminal.

I spent a long time trying to find it again but without success. I caught the 6.30pm ferry again. In 12 hours I had not taken a single photograph. I gave the otter search a break for the next two days before trying again.

This time the sea was choppy, making it nearly impossible to spot movement amid the waves. I didn’t see otters that day at all which made me appreciate the sighting that I had on the first day all the more.

I took home the photographs and painted a series of otter studies in honour of their return from the brink of extinction.

Experts to talk at gallery show

An exhibition of Robert E Fuller’s wildlife paintings including his latest otter studies goes on show runs from November 3-18th at The Robert Fuller Gallery, Thixendale. Robert and two otter experts will be giving an illustrated talk on the survival of otters in Yorkshire on Nov 4th at 7.30pm. There will also be a guided otter walk along the river Derwent or from Tophill Low Nature Reserve. See www.robertefuller.com