Otters give squeaky clean Dales river vote of confidence

TFOR more than a decade, rumours have been spreading across the Yorkshire Dales about the return of one of Britain’s best-loved wild animals.

TBut the clearest indication yet of the burgeoning population of the otter has seen a family of the extremely secretive creatures photographed in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

There had been a dramatic slump in populations throughout the British Isles over a period of more than 20 years up until the late 1970s after pesticides entered the food chain and ravaged the predator’s numbers.

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But the species has returned to every county in England, and its renaissance in the Yorkshire Dales has been attributed to wide-ranging ecology work which has improved water quality and supported the otter’s main diet of fish and crayfish blossom.

Professional wildlife photographer Simon Phillpotts had heard talk from villagers in July that a pair of otters and their cub had returned to the River Ure in Wensleydale.

He staked out a stretch of the river at dawn and at dusk for a total of 50 hours before he was able to catch the elusive animals gliding effortlessly through the water at the start of this month.

Mr Phillpotts, 38, who lives with his wife, Sarah, near the North Yorkshire market town of Hawes, is now embarking on a long-term project to document otters in the Dales which he expects will span the next year.

He said: “It is amazing to see them back in the wild up here in the Yorkshire Dales. They are very shy, especially on land, so it took quite a while for me to actually get a photo of them.

“They are mainly nocturnal, so the best chance of spotting them is very early in the morning or at dusk, but the light obviously fades very quickly.

“I went up to the spot on about 20 occasions, but I saw the otters perhaps only one in five times, and they were often in the distance or quickly ducked under the water.

“They are animals with heightened senses, and can pick you up in an instant. They can smell you before they see you, and they can be put off by the sound a camera clicking. But I was able to get upwind of them, and I was in camouflage as well when I took the photos.

“It is an indication that the eco-system is very healthy and water quality has improved.”

Staff at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority confirmed there has been an increase in sightings of otters in recent years, although there are still only a handful of reports annually.

One of the most obvious indications is the amount of droppings – or spraint – which has been found marking out the animals’ territories.

Ian Court, one of the national park authority’s wildlife conservation officers, confirmed that otter populations are 
thought to have been steadily increasing over the past 10 to 15 years.

But accurate numbers have not been established. The latest figures date from 2002 when it was estimated there were about 1,500 otters in England – a significant rise on the 980 which were thought to be in the country a decade earlier.

Mr Court revealed there is evidence of otters across the Yorkshire Dales, including the rivers Ure, Aire, Wharfe and Swale following sightings as far afield as Hawes, Bainbridge and Grassington.

“The re-emergence of the otter has been a real success story of recent years and the fact a family has been photographed in Wensleydale is brilliant,” he said. “Otters have returned of their own accord, which is a testament to how healthy the rivers and the environment as a whole is.”

But with the dramatic increase in the number of otters comes a new set of problems.

The Mammal Society admitted the otter is now impinging on the nation’s fisheries as the predator searches out an easy source of food amid concerns it could 
end up being hunted down 
itself.

The Environment Agency is holding talks with the Angling Trust and Natural England in a bid to ensure an equilibrium can be found and the future of the otter is not once again placed in jeopardy.

An Environment Agency spokesman said a concerted campaign spanning the past 20 years during which officials have worked closely with water companies and industry leaders to reduce pollution has been one of the main factors behind the rising numbers of otters.

A spokeswoman for the Mammal Society said: “Conservation efforts and a lack of persecution have helped in the recovery of the otter.

“But they are increasingly coming into contact with fisheries, which is a problem that needs to be addressed.”