New Welsh Review
The Otter Book
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This small, square hardback is a beautifully presented introduction to one of Britain’s most popular mammals, the otter. Ranging in topics from otter physiology to representations of otters in art, literature and mythology, it’s an accessible storehouse of otterly information.
There are thirteen different otter species around the world, but the only species to live in the UK is the Eurasian otter, Lutra Lutra, which is the focus of this book. There’s no shortage of fascinating information, including the fact that an otter has no blubber, but its pelt has approximately 70,000 hairs per square centimetre, making it incredibly dense and warm.
Otters are surprisingly short-lived: they care capable of living into their teens in captivity, but in the wild a good lifespan is closer to just four years. Females are sexually mature from the age of two, which means the opportunity for breeding is limited, only mitigated by the fact that they can breed at any time of the year. A female otter can have up to four cubs, but the mortality rate is high, with only one or two usually surviving to full maturity.
Otters are ferociously territorial animals, with male otters claiming up to forty kilometres for themselves, and female otters claiming around half this. Such large territories – and a tendency to fight to defend them – makes releasing rescued otters back into the wild a problematic process.
One of the most interesting topics in the book is our changing attitude to otters. Otters were once hunted for their pelts, which were used to make coats, gloves and hats. They were also hunted because they were seen as a threat to fish stocks. In The Compleat Angler (1653), Izaak Walton declared himself an ‘enemy of the otter’, and anyone who has read Gavin Maxwell’s iconic book, Ring of Bright Water, will remember how some of Maxwell’s neighboursregarded otters as ‘vermin’ to be exterminated. Sadly, to this day there is still cruel and illegal hunting of otters by those wishing to protect fish stocks.
The persecution of otters has had a catastrophic effect. In 1977, the first official UK Otter Survey discovered that 97% of sites previously inhabited by otters were now bare. As well as hunting and habitat destruction, it was eventually understood that the spraying of DDT was a major cause of the decline of the otter population. It took until 1986 for the use of DDT to be banned in the UK (compared to 1972 in the USA) and this ban, together with other legal protections, has resulted in a gradual upturn in otter numbers.
Whilst it’s heartening that otters have returned to so many rivers in recent years, threats remain – the most significant being habitat destruction, road traffic and pollution. Indeed, otters are something of a bellwether for river water quality, and given that the quality of Britain’s waterways is deteriorating again (thanks to regular sewage overflows and agricultural run-off), whether this improvement in otter numbers continues remains to be seen.
The colour photographs and illustrations are among the highlights of the book. As well as the usual images of otters swimming, eating fish and playing, there is also an astonishing series of photographs depicting an otter chasing and catching a guillemot, and another series that shows an otter raiding a pigeon’s nest (unluckily situated in a drainage pipe).
Otters are shy of humans and they remain a rare sighting for most of us; even the author has never seen one in the wild. Quiet wildlife reserves offer the best opportunity for a sighting, but it is never guaranteed. However, there have been otters spotted in some fairly densely populated conurbations in recent years, and sightings are inevitably becoming more common as otter numbers increase. For those who don’t want to take their chances, sanctuaries such as those in Dartmoor run by David Field offer people the opportunity for easy-viewing access to otter enclosures, whilst offering a home for rescued otters prior to (whenever possible) rehabilitation and release.
The Otter Book is part of a series of books focused on different mammals, birds and insects from Graffeg books. Whilst similar to Reaktion’s very fine Animal series, this series is a little less scholarly and at times seems to be written as if addressed to children, with sentences like: ‘Otters have interesting poo!’ Sometimes the author seems happy to keep her information on the vague side – when discussing how otters move on land, she describes them as reaching ‘a fair old pace’. But there’s plenty of interesting detail here, and together with its generous number of images, it has the feel of a miniature coffee table book. It would make a lovely gift for older children or adults with an interest in this playful but elusive creature.
Vicky Mackenzie’s debut book is a novel about a meeting in 1413 between the female mystics Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, just out in hardback (plus ebook and audio) from Bloomsbury.