Otter at rest

Rachel Saunders has a close encounter with a bold otter

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Word on the grapevine was that otters in Thetford were flaunting themselves at all and sundry. Indeed, one report went as far as to say they were practically throwing themselves at one’s feet. Needless to say, there really was no option other than to beat a hasty path down to Nuns’ Bridges at the earliest opportunity……………..

We arrived just upstream of the town centre and within minutes, an otter casually swam upstream with barely a nod in our direction. A volley of clicking cameras ensued as he passed by the bank of onlookers and headed towards the 18th Century bridge. Hardly able to believe our luck, we followed a short distance behind, mindful that any rapid movement or noise might alarm him. That said, he seemed wholly unaffected by his audience.

He paused atop a rock beneath the bridge for a minute or two whilst he groomed himself and then glided gracefully under water towards us. He stopped a foot or two from our feet and, after a cursory sniff, began foraging around in the water at the base of the bank. Within seconds he surfaced with a large fish in his jaws before swimming off to a small niche within the retaining wall on the opposite bank where he devoured his catch.

We slowly followed the otter upstream for another couple of hours as he continued his journey along the River Thet. When travelling beneath the surface, his presence was only betrayed by the silvery trail of bubbles and he would periodically surface, sometimes unexpectedly, right beside us before giving a quick snort and diving under again. On several occasions he climbed the bank and peered at us inquisitively or sprainted on a prominent log or rock. Upstream we met a weir which the otter was clearly reluctant to cross. Either the fast-flowing water served as a deterrent or this feature marked the boundary of his territory. Either way, he changed his direction and began heading back downstream at a gentle pace, all the while searching out fish and invertebrates. A dog-walker passed by in the opposite direction and, alert to their presence, the otter calmly slid below the water and travelled a distance of some 50m before surfacing again and resuming normal activities.

Three hours after we first spied the otter, it had returned to its hover (resting place) within some scrub at the water’s edge and only a stone’s throw from the town centre. Feeling exhilarated by the day’s events, we decided to head off for a coffee and a slice of cake.

It should be noted that otters are legally protected under both domestic and European legislation and disturbance of otters within a place of shelter or indeed away from such areas where this disturbance is liable to affect their ability to survive, breed, rear or nurture young, is an offence. It was evident that this particular otter was somewhat used to life in the fast lane; a hover close to the town centre and regular activity in broad daylight along a stretch of the Thet well-used by walkers, cyclists, dog-walkers and indeed motor vehicles, challenges the oft-assumed timid nature of these beasts. Nonetheless, even these otters will not be immune to disturbance and those keen to see or photograph them should be mindful of this. Although when we were there, those observing the otter behaved impeccably, a subsequent visit was indeed marred by several people chasing after the animal, eventually forcing it out of the water and to run across land on the far side of the river.

There have also been reports of the otters being fed by those eager to gain the perfect shot. Indeed, on occasion, the otter would climb on to the bank and appear to be begging in anticipation of a free lunch. On a cautionary note, despite their appearance, otters are not universally popular; for example, the otter is seen by some as a threat to wild and artificial fisheries, and any action that serves to habituate one of Britain’s largest predators would seem very unwise.

Photo’s by Richard Saunders

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