‘In a world of increasing ecological fragility, there has been no more important moment to focus on the health of nature and what it means to us as human beings, and how we relate to it.’ – Lord Edward Manners.
On a summer evening in 2019, one of our fishermen put down his rod and sat on the riverbank to quietly enjoy watching a mama otter playing happily with her pups in a protected pool on the Derbyshire River Wye.
The gentleman described it as a once in a lifetime moment and it surely was. To see an otter is rare, let alone with her pups, as otters are shy, sparsely populated and are highly mobile, keeping large territories.
Otters, from the family Mustelidae, are the only truly semi-aquatic member of the weasel family and have short ears and noses, webbed feet, elongated bodies, long, powerful tails which act like rudders and soft dense fur which is the densest of any animal, with as much a million hairs per square inch.
Haddon’s otters (Lutra lutra) live on the ample fish and wildlife found within the estate’s rivers. The River Wye that runs through the park and estate is perfect for otters as it is managed in a wild and organic manner, and the waters are considered some of the cleanest in England. Likewise, there is limited pedestrian access to the river, providing the otters the undisturbed area they require to thrive. The high number of mature trees bordering the river provide plenty of potential for good quality holts and shelter.
Unfortunately, even though this species has made a distinct comeback and is now found in every county, wild otters rarely live beyond four years of age. They encounter varied threats including road collisions, habitat destruction, flooding, persecution by fishery owners and pollution.
In 2020, Dr Deborah Dawson of the University of Sheffield and Dr Douglas Ross began a programme of recording otter activity within the Haddon Medieval Park.
Deborah and Douglas are surveying for otters in the Peak District, including Derbyshire’s river Wye which passes through the Haddon Estate. Deborah is a conservation geneticist who works in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. She leads a team using DNA analyses to study the habitat use and territory sizes of England’s recovering otter population. Douglas leads the field surveys, spraint collection and the recording of footage of local otters. Otters are difficult to study since they are rare, sensitive to disturbance, constantly traveling and rarely seen in the daytime. Males and females look very similar and otters live singly, except when a mum has pups. In 2018, Douglas filmed an otter and her young pup providing the first evidence of otters breeding in the Peak District. By combining night camera footage with the DNA profiling, individual otters can be identified, studied and barriers to their connectivity investigated. The team are working with local landowners, interested parties and volunteers in a joint effort to study and support the recovery of the otter as they return to their historical grounds in the Peak District.