Once Near Extinction, Otters on Rise in United Kingdom

A recent trend in England has conservationists smiling. With the sighting if a pair of otters building their homes along the River Medway in Kent, the species, once on the brink of extinction in the United Kingdom, have now been sighted in every county in England. Such an occurrence has not been recorded in over thirty years, and conservationists believe the otter resurgence reflects the increasing health of England’s river systems, and the encouraging progress of the country’s conservation endeavors.

To give a better idea of how far these otters have come, one has to take a look back at the creatures’ history in English ecosystems. During the 20th Century, the range of otters declined by 95% in Western Europe, and because of hunting and pesticide runoff into waterways, the species dwindled onto the border of extinction in England between the 1950s and 1970s.

Then things began to change. In 1978, Great Britain banned otter hunting, and the populations began slowly to creep back up. Once this legislation was coupled with movements to improve water quality in England’s rivers (mostly through the removal of organochlorine chemicals from waterways), more wildlife began to appear in rivers and lakes. Recently, industrial and agricultural businesses, as well as water companies, have reduced the volume of water they’ve extracted from rivers in England. And so behind the combined efforts of these motions, otter populations began their climb, culminating in last week’s sightings in Kent.

While conservationists were monitoring the otter’s progress, they did not think such a renaissance would occur this quick. In Kent, otters were not expected to return to the county for another ten years. In Lancashire, otter numbers have risen 44% from 2008, alone. In rivers passing through metropolitan, industrial areas like Birmingham, Manchester, and Bristol, otters have appeared for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Even in London, there have been otter sightings on the River Thames.

While ecstatic about all the appearances, conservationists are still quick to caution against making the assumption that the sightings correspond to a dramatic rise in otter numbers. It is possible that the creatures sighted are merely roaming into new habitats in search of food. The fact that otters bear only two sets of cubs in their life span, meaning that the species is slow to reproduce, also has led scientists to question how possible it really would be for the population to spread that rapidly. Until conservation groups can collect the population data, it remains unclear whether or not there has been a dramatic statistical change that corresponds with the sightings.

In spite of the doubts, the resurgence of otter sightings speaks volumes toward the well being of England’s rivers. According to the Environment Agency, rivers in Great Britain are at their healthiest in more than 20 years.  

“They are such a beautiful species,” said British naturalist Terry Nutkins. “It’s good news and shows that the rivers are clean and there are more people becoming involved with environmental issues.”

Conservationists view the sightings as progress, but are adamant that Britain still has a ways to go in its conservation efforts, both with otters and with entire ecosystems. The Environment Agency recently received an additional £18 million of funding to put towards river conservation projects, and in regard to the otters specifically, crayfish traps remain a large threat that remains to be dealt with. 

In a day where most ecological news tends to deal with a species being moved from the “threatened” to the “endangered” list, the story of the otter renaissance in England is certainly uplifting news. The otter sightings serve as a benchmark showing how far the health of Britain’s waterways has come in the last 30 or 40 years, which can be attributed to the efforts of the country’s government, conservation groups, and people. Otters are back in England, and with them the optimism that individuals and governments have the potential to revive the well being of the natural world in Britain and beyond.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/2112207670/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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