CLAIRE Caldwell-Knox was walking with her family in Pollok Country Park, Glasgow, when they saw some commotion in the water.

They had been standing waiting to see fish jump, but this was something quite different.

For a moment, Ms Caldwell-Knox’s thought it was a seal, although she knew it couldn’t be – and seconds later realised it as an otter.

A keen photographer, she tracked the animal quickly.

She said: “By the time the otter got over to the embankment I managed to get the picture of it with the huge fish in its mouth. Seconds after that it disappeared into its den.”

Not only did her photograph cause a stir on social media, it also triggered debate because the fish was soon identified as a non-native tiger trout.

HeraldScotland: Pollok Park otter, Claire Caldwell

Pollok Country Park otter, copyright Claire Caldwell-Knox

 

Populations of otters have risen since their low-point in the 1960s and they are increasingly being spotted in urban areas.

In Edinburgh, the wildlife highlight of 2020 for many residents was the otter that took up residence at Dunsapie Loch beside Arthur’s Seat.

That otter, which featured on BBC’s Winterwatch, has since moved on, but the otter-spotting habit hasn’t left the residents, who now delight in seeing them on the Water Of Leith.

Among them is Rosanna Forbes, whose most recent photograph was taken last week, at about 4pm, in an area overgrown with trees and greenery.

She said: “I saw the ripples and lots of people noticed it. There it was – and it hung around there for a good 10 minutes and then it left.

“The more you look for them, the more you notice things, like the line of bubbles they make as they swim along.”

Also avidly watching the Water Of Leith for otter movements is Tom Kelly, who recently captured a picture of the animal holding a fish between its paws.

HeraldScotland:

Otter fishing in Water of Leith, copyright Tom Kelly, SWNS

According to the Water Of Leith Conservation Trust, there are two 15-week-old otter cubs on the river and two more in the natal holt.

The trust has been doing research into otter behaviour in urban areas, prompted by the fact there are very few studies on the animals in towns and cities. The trust has produced a paper titled Diet Of Otters On The Water Of Leith, published in the International Otter Survival Fund Journal.

Research was carried out by a volunteers, led by ecologist Barbara Macfarlane, who collected samples of otter spraint from the river.

Among the report’s conclusions was that “while habitat loss and pollution remain negative forces in the recovery of otter populations... riverine habitat restoration, in particular the restoration of habitat connectivity... will positively impact otters.”

It also noted the Water Of Leith Walkway could continue to be an important recreational space, at the same time as improving the habitat for otters.

However, one thing many otter experts stress is the need not to distress otters by getting too close, or pursuing them in, for example, an attemptto snap an exciting photograph.

Ecologist Melanie Findlay, who has been working for 30 years with otters, said:“Disturbance is an issue, particularly where there are lots of walkers and dogs, and there has been cases of otters being hounded by photographers in urban areas where they are quite visible.”

“We have to respect their space, and a lot of people do, but some don’t. There is a code to be followed in approaching otters. It’s really about having a sensible head on your shoulders and if the otter is sort of continually moving away from you, just let it go.”

There is also a message she would like to get across about otter young.

“The RSPB got that message out about leaving baby birds alone. I would say the same with otters. If you see a young otter calling on the side of the bank, leave it – the females go away and forage and then come back. If you are worried phone the International Otter Survival fund. It rehabilitates otters and knows when you need to uplift them and when you don’t.”

Ms Findlay is working on otter research with Edinburgh Napier University and sees the recent urban river spottings as a good sign.

She added: “The main thing is it means the food supply is good enough in the rivers.”

There are several reasons why otters have made a return in the UK since their population low. One is protection and another is that the chemicals that were impacting them are less abundant.

Ms Findlay said: “These are endocrine disrupting chemicals, a particular group of chemicals, that include pesticides and PCBs.”

They are, however, not yet entirely absent from our water courses.

But the urban world has a few delights for otters too.

Ms Findlay added: “In the Borders old mill lades run underneath the city and these are fantastic for the otters if they can access them. There are no dogs, no cats, no foxes. It’s the otter universe underneath the ground, and bound to be stuffed full of eels. We had a camera that caught a family of otters using these as runways to run from one part of a river to another.”