This content contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org. When you buy through these links, I may earn an affiliate commission.
May 25th is World Otter Day this year. The day was set up by the International Otter Survival Fund to celebrate the 13 species of otter found around the world and to raise awareness about the threats they face. It is celebrated every year on the last Wednesday in May.
Why Are Otters Important?
Otters are important because they are key indicator species for the health of an ecosystem. They are very sensitive to pollution. If a water system is in poor condition, you will not find otters there even if it would otherwise be suitable habitat.
Some species, such as North America’s sea otters and South America’s giant otters, are also ‘keystone species’. Keystone species are those that are essential to the balance of life within an ecosystem. If sea otters decline, numbers of their sea urchin prey increase. These then overgraze kelp forests leading to an underwater wasteland. Fish and mussels rely on kelp forests, and kelp is also an important carbon absorber. Giant otters likewise keep prey species numbers in balance in the river systems of South America.
Otters in the UK
Water quality, pollution and persecution meant that in the UK, Eurasian otter numbers were in massive decline until the 1990s. In England, until that time, they were only found in the extreme north and west of the country. Legal protection, combined with a cut in the levels of harmful pesticides entering river systems means they have bounced back to the point they are now present in every county in England. They are also widespread across Wales and Scotland.
In England and Wales, otters tend to be predominantly nocturnal and very shy. They are also largely river dwellers. In Scotland, even though they are the same species, they often behave differently, especially in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Here they are much more coastal, although they still rely on fresh water to wash and keep in good condition. Hunting will depend much more on the state of the tide than time of day. They will often be seen in broad daylight, with the best time to see them the two hours either side of low tide.
I have lived in Scotland for the last five years and have been lucky enough to have some incredible sightings of otters. Otters regularly visited the centre of Inverness while I lived there. I now live in Shetland which has the densest population of otters in Europe!
Threats to Otters
Worldwide, 12 of the 13 otter species are declining, with 5 species classed as endangered. This is due to a number of factors including habitat destruction, road kills and loss of prey species. In Asia, there is also an illegal trade in fur and live animals for the pet industry.
In the UK, despite the gains of the last 30 years, we also need to be on our guard. Otters are frequently killed on the roads as they are very mobile over large areas. Ever-increasing car numbers means this threat will only get worse. There is also concern that we are going backwards in terms of improvements in water quality. Water companies face very little scrutiny or consequences for pollution events. Monitoring in England is underfunded and outdated with enforcement of regulations low. And declines in otter occupied territories have already been recorded in some areas of Wales, although the reasons are unclear.
World Otter Day 2022
This means that World Otter Day this year is more important than ever to raise awareness of the issues threatening otters around the world. Events are taking place across the globe, from otter walks on Mull to educational events in Uganda. Full details can be found on the IOSF website. They are also hosting a series of webinars on May 25th, with a morning session focusing on Eurasian otters. The evening session looks at otters from further afield.
Even if you aren’t able to see otters where you live, show otters your support and get involved in World Otter Day!
Gavin Maxwell was a complicated character and I have to admit I have mixed feelings about him. He is most famous for The Ring of Bright Water, his account of raising a young smooth-coated otter he brought from the marshes of Iraq to Sandaig, near Skye.
Over a calendar year, Miriam Darlington travelled around the UK in search of otters and describes her journey in Otter Country. She learns how to track otters and meets various experts along with Maxwell’s heir.
Part of the RSPB’s spotlight series, Otters by Nicola Chester is the perfect introduction to Eurasian otters. The book covers all aspects of their lives and behaviour and gives information on how to see them in the wild.