Next time you go for a walk along the River Creedy, near Crediton, have a look for signs of otters. In the last century these elusive creatures suffered a dramatic decline, but in recent years the population has recovered, particularly in the Southwest. Local ecologist Paul Chanin has taken a special interest in otters and reports here on his research work to track them across the country.
We first moved to Crediton in the spring of 1982, when I took up a post at Exeter University. Our house, at the end of Primrose Way, was only a few hundred metres from the river Creedy, conveniently placed for walks across to Shobrooke Park. When, on Christmas Eve that year I took the dog for a walk down to the river I was delighted to find an otter footprint. Seventy years ago that would not have been unusual, nor would it be today, but then it was a rare and fascinating find.
A few years before, I had been involved in a survey of the whole of England when my research assistant, Libby Lenton, visited nearly 3,000 sites across the country to search for signs of otters and only found them at 170 (about 6%). This was the first systematic attempt to survey the country and showed how few otters were left. By that time, we knew that otters had declined dramatically and also that the most likely cause was the introduction of new insecticides the 1960s. What we didn’t know was where they were left.
It was hard work for Libby, she had to search 600m of river bank at each site, wading when she could, and covered about 3,500 kilometres (nearly 2000 miles) of riverbank over the two years of the survey. On average, she only had the reward of finding otter signs a couple of times a week and in practice, because more than half of the records were in southwest England, there would have been times when she went for weeks without finding any. Added to that, of course, she didn’t see a single otter! The surveys are based on signs and although footprints were occasionally found, she was mainly looking for otter droppings – known as spraints. Fortunately, otter spraints are easy to identify and are not unpleasant, which is just as well as one of the identifying features is the smell; another is the presence of fish bones.
Compared to the rest of the country, the otter population was doing quite well in the southwest, with signs at nearly a quarter of the sites surveyed with the Taw, Torridge and Tamar being a particular stronghold. On those three rivers otters were found at nearly half of 140 sites, in contrast with the Thames and Trent catchments where there were no signs at 169 and 238 sites respectively.
So, what about the Creedy? Well it is, of course a very small river, only about 20 km (12½ miles) from its source near Black Dog to Cowley Bridge where it flows into the river Exe. Libby searched eight sites within the catchment in April 1979 and found no signs. So, my sighting might have been the first record of an otter on the river for many years. On the rest of the Exe catchment she searched a further 52 sites and found signs at five. Most were on the main river, one on the Culm at Columnjohn Bridge.
Since my record for the Creedy in 1982, more national surveys have been done (at roughly seven year intervals) visiting the same sites each time to ensure comparability. In May 2000, otters were found at all eight sites on the Creedy and at 90% of the sites within the Exe catchment as a whole. In the last survey to be carried out (in 2010) all but one of the sites on the Exe catchment had signs and nationally they were recorded at 56% of the 3,300 sites; 85% in the Southwest.
Otters are still rarely seen and over all the years I have worked on them I have only once seen one in daylight – on the river Tamar where the A30 crosses into Cornwall. Have you been lucky? I know that some local people have been fortunate enough to see them on the Creedy. I do still speak to them, just, and provided they don’t rub it in!