Skip to content
 

A new home for otters

by Rod Kebble

The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) was once common throughout Britain but its numbers declined after the 1950s due to the loss of habitat, water pollution and the use of pesticides containing chlorinated hydrocarbons.

The UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan calls, among many other things, for the restoration of the otter to all the habitats it occupied in 1960.

Otters have no natural predators. However, dead otters are sent to a laboratory in Cardiff to determine the cause of death and it seems that in most cases not involving natural causes, the motor car is now to blame.

Otters are currently re-establishing themselves by spreading eastwards from the West Country and their spraint (droppings) have been found as close as Godalming on the River Wey and at Staines, on the River Thames.

The Environment Agency is sponsoring the work of the Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) in preparing a number of new otter homes, known as holts, in the county in the expectation that they will be populated in the not too distant future.

The SWT has already installed a number of prefabricated holts on land belonging to Thames Water and, in mid-February, Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT) volunteers from the Pierrepont Farm conservation group helped the SWT install a holt on the bank of the River Wey, where it flows through the farm.

It had rained all the previous day, so the Wey was high and swift flowing. Fortunately, the sun came out for us and nobody managed to fall in.

The holt comes in kit form and consists of preformed sheets made from a particular type of recycled plastic screwed to stakes. A hole is dug in the river bank, the parts are joined together and then the holt is hammered into the base of the hole. The structure is then roofed and covered with earth. The holts are very sturdy, one reportedly having suffered no damage when a cow trod on it.

The holt in position but not yet hammered into the ground by Countryside Restoration Trust volunteers. Tight internal corners help deter any unwelcome larger visitors. The flat roof has not yet been put on and the 'front door' (the length of black pipe at right) still needs to be attached.

The holt in position but not yet hammered into the ground. Tight internal corners help deter any unwelcome larger visitors. The flat roof has not yet been put on and the 'front door' (the length of black pipe at right) still needs to be attached.

The holt has a front entrance tunnel of flexible plastic pipe, aligned to point in the direction in which the river flows to prevent (or at least delay) flooding. There is also a back door in case the holt does flood and the residents need to escape. This is particularly important where an otter has young (known as whelps, kits or pups), as newborn otters are unable to swim until they are two months old.

The SWT was represented by Chris Matcham, its Otters & Rivers Project Officer, and Marcus Jaskari, a volunteer ranger from Finland. Chris is also the designer of the holts and is pleased that the first pair of otters to breed successfully in captivity in recent times did so in one of his constructions. It is not known whether this was due to the romantic ambience of Chris’s holt or whether the otters were up for it anyway, but fingers are crossed that the success will be repeated in the wild.

The otter holt working party, with Countryside Restoration Trust volunteers and Chris Matcham and Marcus Jaskari from the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

The workforce: (L to R) Rod Kebble, Chris Matcham, Conway Churchill, Brian Lavers, Jean Honeyford and Marcus Jaskari. Joan Foster was behind the camera. The holt is under the sticks and in the right foreground is the rear entrance, with the front door nearer the river.


Members of the public can help fund Chris Matcham’s work by adopting an otter.