40. Another otter’s tale by Kevin O'Hara
Thursday 25th August 2011
© James Bell
I cannot hide my passion for otters - I have had it since I was a small boy and I don’t understand it, it is just one of those strange traits of life. I don’t, however, view them as cute, cuddly creatures much beloved by the media, and I have often been at pains to point this out, much to their disappointment.
That cute whiskered face hides a fierce and fiery temperament, and an astonishing array of teeth set within very powerful jaws. On top of this is the mustelid mindset of determination and that wilyness never to give in, coupled with a brain-powering logic to solve problems that most other creatures (apart from the primates) would find impossible.
It is easy to see why so many people are captivated by them - I never tire of watching their graceful fluid movement in the water and their almost comic lollop on dry land, but as I say they are predators, and top predators at that. They have to eat to survive; it is in their nature to kill and they do so very effectively and efficiently.
Otters have specific adaptations to be specialist aquatic hunters: they are shaped to cut through water effortlessly, their nostrils and ears close under water and they have webbed feet, all of which, coupled with their thick double-insulating coat, make them very effective hunters in their chosen element.
They are, however, just glorified aquatic weasels and as such will hunt anything that lives or breathes if it is within their grasp - they have to or else they will die. Therefore, an otter’s diet is actually very catholic. If you have looked through as many otter spraints (droppings to the uninitiated) as I have over the years, then you get a very real picture of just exactly what they will eat given the stakes.
I have found water shrews, rats, kittens, mink, rabbits, mice, water voles, bats and even dragonflies, and of course countless bird species from starlings to swans, herons and cormorants. All these and many more have found their way through an otter digestive tract at some point.
So it was little surprise to me that I received a call for help from a local wildfowl collection recently, as an otter was paying far too much attention to some rare duck species. I say it wasn’t a surprise, but it was a surprise that it had taken them so long to realise that otters have this trait and that they were right on their doorstep.
Anyway, visiting the site emphasised just how incredibly ingenious they are at exploiting any chink in anything’s armour, including electric fences. This brazen little chap was entering via the tiniest of faults in the perimeter fence, that the owners had overlooked thinking it too small for an otter or anything to get through. Several rare ducks later and some camera trap footage, and they changed their minds.
The camera traps also revealed that this ‘brazen chap’ was actually a ‘chapess’ with two little chaplets in tow. Otters utilise situations of abundance to teach their youngsters all the skills needed to hunt and survive in what is a very harsh environment.
This mother was definitely exploiting an abundant resource. The footage revealed how she slipped gently into the pools and took ducks selectively from beneath the surface, choosing the smaller or clumsier species in preference to those that could apply a rapid vertical take-off manoeuvre.
Like a U-boat carefully selecting targets from the fleet, she returned with each prize to her charges who watched diligently from the banks. She also brought them some hors d'oeuvres in the shape of frogs and toads, showing them how to deal with both in separate ways, rejecting the skin of the toad and spawn of both.
Unfortunately the entry had to be sealed and her midnight feasts were ended, but at least the cubs will have learned first-hand how to take a duck and skin a toad for when they start their own escapades down on a river near you. They truly are the king of all creatures for me, the ‘king of the flood’, the goose-footed hunter.