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A rare Surrey otter caught on camera
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A rare Surrey otter caught on camera
Otters have been a rare sight in Surrey in recent years, but improved habitat and water quality are enticing them back. Emily Davis investigates
Otters have returned to Surrey for the first time in over 40 years, with local sightings and photographs taken along the River Wey confirming the happy homecoming.
Well-established as quintessentially English river residents until the second half of the 20th century, a disturbing trend began to emerge in the 1950s and 60s when these shy creatures began to vanish from our river banks. The cause? Widespread pesticide use, which poisoned the nation’s waterways and killed off thousands of animals.
“We nearly lost a national treasure” says Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) Wetlands Landscape Officer Jim Jones. “Otters came very, very close to extinction.”
Thankfully, since 1975 toxic chemicals, such as DDT have been gradually phased out and otters across the UK have begun to slowly repopulate. In the late 1970s, only 6% of traditional sites in England had evidence of otters. That figure has risen to 75%, and as of this year, Surrey can count itself one of the chosen spots.
Jim, who has been heavily involved with projects designed to manage river waste more responsibly and restore otters to the River Wey, is lucky enough to be among the few individuals to have made a sighting.
“I was astonished,” reveals Jim. “I was taken to a site where a resident said he had spotted otters earlier that day. He pointed in the direction of where they had been, and suddenly they appeared there again – three otters, an adult and two young ones, playing together. It was incredible! After all this time, they were seen twice in one day.”
As well as improving water quality, SWT has been working with the Environment Agency (EA) since 1997 to create natural habitat along the River Wey for travelling otters to build dens in.
“We planted lots of otter-friendly natural scrub like hawthorn and blackthorn at the water’s edge, so otters swimming into the area would have somewhere to rest and build new holts,” explains Jim.
He hopes that recent sightings mark the end of the South East’s otter dearth.
“I see this as the beginning of the natural otter re-colonisation of Surrey,” he says. “The otter disappearance represented something lost from our landscape. To have them return means there is hope for other species, too. It means that we really can reverse environmental damage.”
Sightings alone, however, do not scream credibility. So Jim roped in some help from the University of Surrey. Specifically, PhD computer science student Aaron Mason, who had recently created a special camera that tracks wildlife automatically and instantly, as part of a project he calls 'Wildsense’.
“The cameras I use are highly sensitive and are triggered by movement,” Aaron explains. “All the devices contain SIM cards, so every photo captured is immediately emailed to me.”
Aaron and Jim installed the cameras along the banks of River Wey and the waiting game began. As you might have guessed, the camera’s sensitivity could be both a blessing and a curse.
“Lots of things that definitely weren’t otters caused photos to be taken. I got emailed empty snaps created by wind, leaves and other animals; there were so many false alarms. But when I finally got an otter image it was very exciting. I woke up one morning and there it was in my inbox. It had been taken overnight.”
That was back in June. Since the first pictures, an otter family of one adult and two juveniles have been photographed around 14 times.
Where the snaps were taken remains
a mystery, though, as Aaron and Jim want to protect the animals from those who wrongly believe that otters threaten fish supplies.
“Sadly there are people out there who would try to endanger the project and stop otters breeding, so we want to keep their exact location as private as possible,” says Aaron.
So, for now, at least, the chances of seeing an otter in Surrey are probably fairly slim. It may well be a matter of years before the population is fully restored and guides to local otter spotting can be safely disclosed.
In the meantime, console yourself with the reassuring knowledge that our shy friends are finally on the home straight.
It may take a little time, but at as long as Jim and Aaron are on the case, it seems otters really are back for good.
Visit surreywildlifetrust.org for more information