Otters on the map

Wildlife Whisperer is an online community designed for anyone with an interest in wildlife and the natural world. Included are films and wildlife webcams, advice and help with your wildlife queries from our team of experts, including wildlife cameraman and TV presenter Simon King. Here Simon explains how to use your map to spot otters in the wild.

Otters are undoubtedly one of the nation’s most popular creatures – and for good reason: they are charismatic, playful and have the added frisson of being shy and elusive. Most folk will go through life without ever setting eyes on one. So how can you improve your chances of coming face to face with this enigma of our rivers, lakes and coastline? 

The first step is to pick the right spot, and that’s where Ordnance Survey Explorer maps come in. Otters suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers during the 1960s and 70s due to pollution, persecution and habitat loss, but recent efforts to clean up our waterways and a change in attitude towards this true king of the river has seen a recovery all over the country. There are signs that otters are breeding in every county in England and are widespread in Wales and Scotland. Contact your local Wildlife Trust to get an idea of the population in your neighbourhood, and then get an Ordnance Survey map of your area to see in detail the features and lay of the land. 

The first stage on this journey of discovery is to decide which habitat you are going to search. Otters in Scotland, the Hebridean Islands and Shetland, as well as using fresh waterways, are also perfectly at home in the sea. In any of these areas a coastal search is likely to be the most fruitful. Elsewhere in the British Isles, otters tend to keep to the freshwater bodies and estuaries. By and large, spotting an otter on a river system is much more challenging than on the coast or an open-water body, simply because the stretch of water visible at any one time is limited by the twists and turns of the river. Scour your OS Explorer map for relatively straight runs of river that are traversed by a bridge. Bridges offer a first-class viewing platform: they keep you above the sightline of the otter, ensure your scent is away from their sensitive noses and allow a birds’ eye view of the stretch you are watching. 

Several towns and cities in England, Scotland and Wales now have otters using waterways during daylight hours in full view of busy public bridges and footpaths. Elsewhere, you stand a better chance of seeing an otter in open-water body – a broad, lake or large pond. Use your OS Explorer map to identify open water in your area, then check for public access, such as footpaths or national nature reserves. Many of the latter have permanent hides and these are an ideal viewpoint for what may turn into a long vigil. Your local Wildlife Trust should be able to offer you advice on the best places to see otters in your neighbourhood. 

Maps come into their own when trying to watch otters on the coast. You can plan your day according to the wind direction, choosing a stretch of coast that will carry your scent inland rather than across the water. They also illustrate the coastal topography, and the ideal coastline for otter watching has a bank to ensure your outline doesn’t stand out against the sky, and – at least at mid to low tide – a beach area that offers the otters a place to bring large prey items

ashore and still be seen. With a bit of research, patience and an OS Explorer map, you stand a very good chance of catching up with what I feel is one of the most beautiful of all British wild animals. 

OS Explorer maps and OS Landranger maps now come in a tough all-weather Active format, as well as our popular paper versions.They’re available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores, or visit our online map shop at www.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk for all our products, map-reading guides and online magazine.

www.wildlifewhisperer.tv is the ideal spot for nature lovers. Wildlife Whisperer is an online community designed for anyone with an interest in wildlife and the natural world. Included are films and wildlife webcams, advice and help with your wildlife queries from our team of experts, including wildlife cameraman and TV presenter Simon King.

This article appeared in the Winter 12 issue of Walk Magazine

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