Ask anyone in Durham if they’ve ever seen an otter on the River Wear and the answer’s probably “No”. Which is surprising as these lutrine predators, over a metre long, are actually quite common in the North East. It bears out my own experience though, as despite the time I’ve spent walking the region’s rivers, all I’ve ever seen are footprints and fishy leftovers. Ironically, this elusive native species is reported to be “using all of the available watercourses…and the whole of the coast”.
Desperately Seeking Otters
While otters can be found making their homes in drains and scrapyards they’ll happily ignore habitat which appears more suitable. For example, c19th populations on the River Wear were noticeably sparse at a time when otters were hunted for sport. Apparently it wasn’t so much the hunting that caused the absence as the effects of lead mining. The South Tyne and Derwent were similarly affected. The situation was cleverly captured in verse by a Satley naturalist, J.W. Fawcett, in 1889:
“An otter on the Wear
You may see but once a year.
But an otter on the Tees,
You may see when ‘er you please”.
There was a brief but general decline in the 1960s-1970s due to pollution from pesticides. In 1978 otters were given protection from being hunted while pesticides were phased out. Consequently, since the 1980s numbers have continued to climb on all rivers. It’s encouraging that while we’re constantly told how nature’s on the brink of catastrophe, otters and many other species are thriving.
Video to the Rescue
By way of illustration, John O’Neil, a friend of the site, recently got in touch with me. He knew a chap who had taken a video on his phone of an otter on the River Wear at Sunderland Bridge. That’s not far away from me, on the southern outskirts of Durham. The bridge (pictured) is a handsome c16th structure at one of the most attractive locations on the Weardale Way. In fact, it’s just upstream from the Wear’s confluence with the River Browney, which is perhaps significant.
Anyway, I was down there the next day though possibly not early enough, as I was still out of luck. However, in the meantime John had been able to get hold of the video to share on the site. It’s not very long but Neil Carruthers, who shot what was a six-minute clip on his phone did a great job. I hope he won’t mind that I edited it to a minute and a quarter. However, the result is a lovely clip of a lovely animal in a lovely location. Enjoy.
Wilkin, Bob, and Terry Coult. Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles of the North East. Edited by Ian Bond, vol. 73, Natural History Society of Northumbria, 2012.