The European otter (Lutra lutra) has the largest range of any of the otter family, inhabiting rivers and lakes right across Europe and some areas of Africa and Asia. This otter species is mainly solitary and strongly territorial. They hunt at night by sight, touch and smelling underwater, spending most daylight hours in a burrow known as a holt.
The small amphibious mammals feed mainly on fish, needing as much as 15% of their bodyweight per day in fish. Young cubs are taught to fish by their mothers releasing live prey for them to re-catch; it can take as many as 18 months for juveniles to become expert fishers.
However although these playful otters can now be found in every county in England this has only been the case in the last couple of years. In the 1950s, the only place in the British Isles the otters could be found were small areas of Scotland, particularly the Shetland Islands. The otters were hunted for their fur and to stop them from depleting fish stocks. Even after hunting was banned, the otters continued to suffer because of river pollution from pesticides.
It was only in the 1990s when we started to see otters return to England following new legislation banning harmful pesticides and reintroduction programmes. During the period of 1994 to 2002 we saw a huge 55% increase in otter populations across the UK.
These creatures still need protection though as the combination of a short lifespan (average 4 years), small numbers of cubs per litter (one to three) and extended juvenile dependency means the otters have low population growth and are vulnerable to extinction.
Otter population recovery has not been as successful in some other countries the otter is native to. In the Netherlands and Switzerland where the otters used to be prevalent they are now thought to be extinct. They are classified as endangered in South Korea and Pakistan and are a protected species in Hong Kong.
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