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A SUFFOLK PLAN FOR OTTER CONSERVATION T H E EARL OF CRANBROOK

IN 1962 a letter 'Where are the Otters' was published in The Gamekeeper in which the writer said that one well known pack of otter hounds had only found four Otters in twenty days hunting, and that neither he nor a number of experienced otter hunters whom he had consulted had seen any otter cubs 'for a very long time'. Few naturalists read that paper, not many are otter hunters, and it wasn't until 1968 that the position of the otter became well known amongst them and the Mammal Society appointed a committee to investigate and report. Evidence was widely invited but the only numerical data came from the Otter Hunts all of whom keep hunting diaries. From those it was learned that between 1900 and 1957 all the twelve Otter Hunts in Great Britain put together had on the average hunted on 480 days a year between them on which they had found 340 otters, killing 170 of them. Over that period the number found per 100 days hunting was very consistent, varying between sixty-four in 1900 and eighty in 1947, while in 1957 it was seventy-two. Obviously the otter population had remained very stable over those years. Between 1957 and 1967 the number found per 100 days hunting had fallen by about 40% from seventy-two to forty-four and by implication the whole population by 40% also. The actual number of otters was not known, but experienced otter hunters and the few naturalists who had made any study of otters thought that the average density was about one otter for every six miles of river in the 1950s. I was brought up to believe that an otter needed between five and ten miles of river to support it. The general evidence of the hunts supported that of Lloyd that otters had ceased to breed, though there was some evidence that breeding had started again in some places. Knowing that if there were no otters there was no otter hunting, the hunts had started a new practice of continuing to look for otters but if one was found calling off the hounds without killing. In the late 1950s and early 1960s there had been a number of deaths amongst seed eating birds and amongst the predators, foxes and hawks, which fed on the dead and dying birds, and also a fall in the reproduction rate in many species of birds, sterile eggs, thin egg shells and in some cases no breeding at all. When the dead bodies and eggs were analysed they were found to contain the residues of the pesticides aldrin and dieldrin which were much used as seed dressings in agriculture particularly in the lowland arable districts where the fall in the number of otters found had been highest. In the area of the Eastern Counties Otter Hounds, which includes Suffolk, the fall had been 54%.


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The Mammal Society thought that none of the other inimical factors, of which the most harmful seem to be the ever increasing disturbance caused by boating and fishing, could have had so disastrous an effect over that short period of ten years. The use of dieldrin and aldrin in agriculture had started to be controlled, breeding had started again so unless some new factor prevented it the Otter population would recover sooner or later but it was not possible to say how soon. The Society recommended in 1969 that 'the killing of Otters should be reduced as much as possible for the next five to ten years'. Now eight years later that recommendation seems still to be being followed. The Hunts report that over the last five years the number of Otters killed by hounds in Great Britain has been twelve in 1972, ten in 1973, nine in 1974, five in 1975 and five in 1976. It must obviously continue to be followed until the otter has regained the density which it had in 1957. What otter hunters call a 'find' is what naturalists making a survey call a 'sight', the otter has actually to be seen and now that hounds are called off without killing the otter will be under much less pressure than when the huntsman was trying to kill and less likely to be seen. The old criterion of 'number found per hundred days hunting' is no longer applicable. Hunts, however, not only record 'finds', but also 'addition drag' when hounds follow an otter which is never actually seen and 'blank days'. If these are recorded with map references they will provide useful information on the distribution of the otter supplementary to that found by naturalists' surveys. That usefulness was shown on the Waveney in 1976. Rodney West in his Suffolk Otter Survey 1969-1972 estimated that there were ten Otters on the Waveney, the Norfolk Survey (December, 1974 to June, 1975) found none. Philip Wayre, a well known expert on Otters reported in 1976 that there was 'one possibly two' between Bungay and Hoxne. When the Hunt sent in records of its activities it reported two otters in that 20 km. Stretch 1975, two in 1976, Wayre and the Hunt confirming West's estimate on that Stretch. Obviously a hunt which does not kill is an admirable monitoring tool for conservationists! We naturalists do not want another disaster like that of the 1960s to come upon us unnoticed and do want to keep a constant eye on the status of the otter in the county. This Society, the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation and the local Hunt have agreed on the following Plan for the Conservation of the Otter in Suffolk. 1. The whole catchment area of the River Deben will be designated as the County Otter Reserve. The Hunt will no longer accept invitations to meet there and it is hoped to arrange for


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Suffolk Natural History, Vol. 17, Part 3

artificial holts or other forms of shelter along its banks. Its headwaters are within the normal otter travelling distance of those of the Dove and Gipping to which the annual surplus can disperse. 2. T h e Waveney and Stour are the two rivers most disturbed by such day time activities as fishing and boating. Discussions are already taking place with local landowners about holts and shelter away from the river side where Otters can spend the day in peace. 3. Similar discussions have already taken place with the River Authority, fishermen and landowners about keeping as much shrubby growth as possible along the banks between water level and bank top. 4. A monitoring committee of representatives of this Society, of the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation and of the Hunt has been set up to keep the status of the otter constantly under review and to advise the Trust and the Hunt accordingly. T h e otter hunters have no objection to being in a minority, knowing that representatives of Society and Trust will approach the problem with scientific objectivity and integrity. The Master of the otter hounds will be ready to take out two or three couple of steady old hounds and look for Otters in any area from which the Committee needs information. He would hope to be accompanied by two or three naturalists while doing so. Similarly the Committee would hope to be supplied with information by naturalists and in particular of course during the next two or three years by those involved in the second survey to be started by Rodney West in Suffolk in 1977. With information from both naturalists and hunt, a pretty clear picture of the present status of the otter should emerge. Monitoring must though be a continuing process, indeed should be a continuing process for all animals as sparsely distributed as are Otters. The Earl of Cranbrook, C.B.E., F.L.S., Red House Farm, Great Glemham, Saxmundham, Suffolk.

A Suffolk plan for otter conservation  
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