33. Fisherman's tales by Kevin O'Hara

Friday 24th June 2011

© Allan Potts

A mate of mine called the other day to say that, at long last, after years of patiently fishing on many riverbanks and beaches, catching absolutely nothing but hypothermia he had just seen his first wild otter!

The inevitable fisherman’s tales followed: “it was this lang”, he said (with arms spread wider than the room) “and that was just the hook I used to catch it”. To be fair he is a good angler and not as prone to exaggeration as many are and having been an angler for over thirty years I have known quite a few.

He reckoned it stole a flatfish off his hook, which he was ecstatic about, the whole experience had been a wonderful once in a life-time chance encounter where the otter showed exactly who was the better fisherman. I have fished for many years in wide circles and know many anglers whose feelings toward the ‘King of the Flood’ are just as reverential; however, my mate also pointed out a recent television and press article which had concerned him in which a very well know TV angling personality was calling for a cull of otters.

My mate rightly asked me questions about the life of an otter as he knows I am ‘otterly mad’ (sorry!). He went away happy, as most do, with his ‘otter encounter’, but I could not stop thinking about the article. Watching it and reading the so-called ‘evidence’ really got me going and for someone so well known to publicly state such things was beyond me.

So, for the record, if I put the same amount of experience with otters as I have with angling, together that’s somewhere near eighty years (that makes me sound old), so what I say may make some sense.

Otters eat fish! Mostly anyway, supplemented by rodents, rabbits, birds, frogs, anything really they can catch. Most of the otters in Britain originated from wild stock, dispersing naturally through careful habitat management and enhancement, plus huge improvements in water quality which have improved fish stocks.

A little over one hundred otters were ‘reintroduced’ into south eastern England up until 1999 and no otters have ever been reintroduced in the north east of England. The otters here in the north east got here by themselves because of four legs, good habitat, water quality and fish stocks. We should be justly proud and I am personally am, for having my small part to play in this success.

Much of the story reported in the press centres on southern England and commercial fisheries where, yes I can see there may be an issue, but even here the mistruths are rife!

If I opened a shop in most parts of the regions with no front door on I would expect there to be nothing left in it the following day; similarly if you dig a hole fill it full of fish and do nothing to protect them, you are asking for trouble - from both humans and animals. The same thing often applies to garden ponds - you can protect them to from herons etc. yet when an otter turns up it is someone else’s fault.

I have fished the region’s rivers for over thirty years and in that time my experiences and enrichment, like the quality of the fishing, has increased along with the presence of otter. It is no coincidence that what is good for us and fishing is good for otters too. I want to share my life and river with a creature as beautiful as an otter, I’m not sure about the latter with me mind.

It was quite ironic that I also received a timely reminder of days gone by this week when someone sent me some photos of otter hunting in Northumberland at the turn of the last century. They are wonderful images of a bygone era and a pursuit that has long since passed into the realms of
history - which is where it should rightly stay.

There is no place in our modern society for a cull of any of our native creatures - the world is big enough for everybody - despite the length of some fisherman’s tales.