The Otters of a Denbighshire Stream

This blog entry comes from Mal Ingham, a long-time camera-trapper and wildlife expert living in North East Wales…

On the 23rd March 2014 I received a telephone call from a friend and neighbour informing me that he had been walking the stream that flows through his land when he came across tracks in a sand bank and could I take a look.

He’s an accomplished naturalist and it surprised me a little that he wanted a second opinion as to what could have made the tracks.  Anyway off I went and as he led me to the sand bank he said “I think I know what they are, but I would like you to confirm it.”  I immediately recognised them as otter tracks!

Otter tracks under bridge

My friend was born and bred on the farm and in the 1960’s wrote an article for the magazine, “Nature in Wales” entitled “The Mammals of a Denbighshire Farm” in which he recorded 21 species of mammal from water vole to red squirrel, but not otter, and he was absolutely thrilled at the thought that after all these years otter may at long last be utilising his little stream.

Once we had established that the tracks were indeed that of otter I began to scour the length and breadth of the stream for further evidence and it didn’t take me long to discover more fresh tracks and spraint deposited on various rocks.

Spriant in moss on hollow tree

My next course of action was to set up trail cameras at prime locations in the hope of actually capturing the illusive otter on video. Little did I realise at the time just how much exciting footage I would get capturing the comings and goings of a bitch and her two cubs including the interactions and vocalisations to the eventual dispersal of the cubs some nine months or so later.

Otters on camera trap

The first time Mal captured otters on this stream (click for video – courtesy of Mal Ingham)

The bitch’s virtually overnight change from a devoted mother to her actively and aggressively chasing the cubs away, and I certainly didn’t expect to still be monitoring otters on that little stream some three years later and accumulating a vast amount of data and footage in the process.  Not only of otters, but also of many other species including water shrew, hedgehog, badger, polecat, little egret, mandarin duck, dipper, grey wagtail, goosander and common sandpiper to name but a few. In fact, in just one location alone I have recorded a total of 37 species either in the water or on the bank.

Otter on camera trap

An otter bitch playing with her cubs (click for video – courtesy of Mal Ingham)

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked the stream in search of otter spraint etc. and yet seen very little evidence of aquatic life other than the occasional minnow if I’m lucky, and yet I’ve caught heron on camera devouring a trout on a number of occasions and even found sea trout floating on the surface having died after spawning.

Despite the lack of a visual presence there is obviously enough food to sustain an otter family including eels, but as yet I haven’t found evidence of them, neither have I discovered a breeding holt but when I first captured the cubs on camera they were still quite small being approximately three to four months old and not long left the safety of the holt.  I did however discover a non-natal holt in the hollow of an old tree used by the bitch and her cubs to lay-up during the day and captured them on a trail camera going in and out after dark.

Otter on camera trap

An otter bitch and cubs enjoying some sprats left for them (click for video – courtesy of Mal Ingham)

In January of this year (2017) I recorded an adult otter bitch and her single cub on a number of occasions playing together and then to add even more mystery to these fascinating creatures, I recorded a second adult otter with two cubs!

To complicate matters even more I can often pick up an otter heading upstream in the direction of a second camera a mere 30 meters away and yet they are not recorded. The obvious answer being that they have left the stream and are heading overland, and they do leave a narrow winding trail in the grass which I follow in the expectations of making a new discovery; only to be frustratingly disappointed once again as the trail comes to an abrupt end as my elusive otter appears to have been beamed up to the heavens!

One of Mal's camera traps suspended over the stream

One of Mal’s camera traps suspended over the stream

The more I study the otters of this little stream the more I realise just how little I actually know about the comings and goings of these fascinating and frustratingly elusive creatures!  These otters appear not to have read the otter books on ecology and behaviour etc. by such acclaimed authors as Hans Kruuk and James Williams.  If they had, perhaps my otter monitoring days would be a little more predictable!

Trail cameras have been an invaluable tool in monitoring the comings and goings of the otters & other species, without them so much would have been unknown.

Even if I have drowned a couple!!!

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