Urban Otters

For some weeks now, I’ve seen reports and amazing photographs of Otters in a town not too far away from me. Finally, I could no longer resist such a fantastic opportunity, and today I set out to find them. The Otter is an iconic mammal, shy and elusive, gracing our rivers once again after many years of persecution. But these guys are the new kids on the block, bold as brass, with attitude and charm in equal measure, they’ve swum their way into our urban environs.

Walking along the river footpath, I have a moment of uncertainty about the direction of the trail, when suddenly there’s a great big splash. Peering through the bushes I glimpse my first wild urban Otter, incredible. I see her shake out her coat and then dive right back in with another splosh of water. A photographer comes round the corner hurrying and struggling through the undergrowth trying to keep up. My senses come back to me and I hasten away from the action, they’re heading downstream and I’m already ahead of them, so I circle round a bend in the river and set up and wait.

European Otter, lutra lutra

What happened next, I could never have predicted. Many gardens back onto the river, and at the edge of this particular garden there were a group of chickens scratching through the leaves on the riverbank. The opportunistic Otters didn’t miss a trick, and leapt from the water onto the bank and gave chase, there was a lot of clucking as the panicking birds scattered out of the way of the Otter, as he pursued them back and forth. Cleverly, he slipped back into the water. One of the hens froze in fear, caught between the wrong side of the fence and the river and unable to see the predator, a fatal mistake. The Otter came silently and swiftly, propelled from the river by wide paws and thick tail, two bounds and he caught the hapless hen, who barely had time to react. Squealing and flapping hard she nearly broke free in a cloud of feathers, but the Otter dragged her to the water where she finally met her end.

European Otter, lutra lutra

An astonishing thing to witness, nature red in tooth and claw. A fine meal for the two Otters, but not so pleasant for the chicken’s unfortunate owner. Hopefully, with their preferred diet of fish, this isn’t a scene repeated too often.

The Otters were totally unconcerned by the human onlookers, and as more people joined the group they ate their fill, then had a swim and paused to dry off their fur and rest.

European Otter, lutra lutra

But that’s the only thing that spoils this for me. To my left, twelve cameras all set to ‘machine-gun-fire’, a barrage of shutter noise whenever the Otter moves. Call me a purist, but this isn’t wildlife photography. Not one of them is watching their back, thinking of wind-direction or stealth. For me, that’s wildlife photography at it’s best – watching and photographing an animal without it knowing you are there, and creating images different to anyone else. It’s not the Otter’s fault, they’re a modern mammal, adapting to the increasing urbanisation of their natural home. Perhaps I ought to get with the times too. But it’s great to see so many people taking an interest in our wildlife, it needs as many protectors and supporters as it can get. The Otter’s are unfazed by the attention, but I’ll be back at a quieter time.

Posing for the cameras…

European Otter, lutra lutra


Domestic chicken

Is it safe to come down yet?
(Click images to view larger…)

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  1. Wow, great shots. I hope no one makes too much fuss about them as I think that there are a few fish keepers who would like to see their end! Well done great captures.
    Rob & Jan

  2. Dawn, What a fabulous story and fabulous otter shots. I tend to agree with you about crowds, had a similar experience trying to get LSW’s the other day, not my idea of fun. Back to you though and I also thoroughly enjoyed looking at and reading your blog. Brian

  3. Nice to hear from you Dawn, and what lovely shots of an urban otter! I tried recently (and failed) to photograph river otters in Norfolk, so my congratulations to you. Shame about the ‘photographers’ though…

  4. Sadly, these Otters have taken nearly two dozen Chickens from this area. Whilst Otters are undoubtedly cute, we should not forget that they are predators. One wonders whether two wild dogs in the town would be welcomed as much as these. They probably dont have to work hard to catch the chickens so it is easy pickings. Certainly the fish stocks in Thetford are poor, but with Otters eating 3lbs and upwards of meat a day, these two Otters will consume close to a ton of meat, be it fish or fowl, every year. Thetford’s high population of Eastern Europeans have long been blamed for the decline of the number of good sized fish in the town. I doubt they could be blamed for half of the amount our ‘cute’ wild Otters are responsible for.

    1. Thank you ChickenLover for your comments. I understand how upsetting it must be for the chicken’s owners (we ourselves have chickens in the family), but from watching events unfold on that day it was actually quite difficult for the otter to catch the chicken. Otter’s are not very well designed for running on land, and the rest of the chickens easily outran the otter and got away. This poor chicken unfortunately tried to make a run for it, but was the wrong side of the fence and therefore unable to escape. I believe the deaths of the chickens could easily have been prevented had the fence at the bottom of the garden been complete – the garden was only partially fenced at the bottom allowing the chickens access to the river bank. The chickens themselves did have some predator evasion instincts – escaping into the trees, but as responsible owners we must take care of our livestock, which includes making them safe from predators, whether that be otters, foxes or thieves.

      Two wild dogs would probably not be welcomed into town, but then, dogs are not a rare species like the otter. According to the International Otter Survival fund’s surveys, there are only around 2000 otters in England and Wales, making our population very vulnerable. Numbers are still very low compared to before the massive population decline due to pesticides, when they nearly became extinct. The fact that the otters are here shows that the rivers in the area are healthy, pollution free and full of fish. The otters are only able to live in an area where they can find enough food.

      For more information, have a look at the International otter survival fund’s press release here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B5NTJ1JsqkuRNi1LUHcycEJqaFE/edit?pli=1

      And also the Mammal Society here: http://www.mammal.org.uk/species-factsheets/Otter

      Finally, I never described the otters as ‘cute’ in my blog post – I have a healthy respect for these wild animals, I know of a photographer who had a large bite taken out of his lens hood by an otter, so wildlife watchers and photographers should be wary – they may seem tame, but they are wild animals.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  5. I have to agree with Dawn’s comments in reply to Chickenlover.
    It wasn’t that long ago that we had to have an Otter Sanctuary near Bungay to preserve our rapidly disappearing otters. In my experience in the last 20 odd years of living in the locality when there is a case of livestock kills it is invariably down to bad husbandry.
    We seem to think that the countryside belongs to us in the words of Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney): “We must remember that nature doesn’t belong to us; rather that we belong to nature.”
    We must learn to share our environment with all people & creatures because if one day the creatures die out, our extinction won’t be long following them.

  6. I am a chicken keeper and I agree totally with Dawn. I want to keep chickens and also have unpersecuted,native wildlife so I take full responsibility for ensuring my animals are safe from predation. Were I to let them wander freely then I shouldn’t be suprised if Mr. fox will take advantage. Long may Otters embrace our rivers.

  7. Well I understand all of your points of view. However, when too many of any animal become prevalent, then they ultimately become a pest. Otters in Thetford are now even seen walking up roads in the middle of the day. They looked to have taken many ducks and we know they like chicken; the day when a person or child is bitten will probably change the tone. They get into peoples back gardens and will take whatever they can find. I dont feel safe leaving my children in my back garden, and I should. Time will tell.

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