The main sign of the presence of an otter is the spraint that it left for the otters to ﬁnd and decipher. It is usually black, and crinkly, of any shape or size. As it is a scent signal, the otter is not always moved to leave a large spraint; a very small sample will suﬃce for the length of time that the information is of current interest to an otter. It can be tubular and sausage shaped, but frequently is not; the otter hunters often referred to it as “coke” because it resembles a small
lump of that now outdated fuel.
On close examination you should be able to see ﬁsh bones and scales, or occasionally feathers, frogs’ leg bones or ﬁsh eggs. Fur is not common content. A large furry dropping is probably fox, a small, pencil-slim one, mink. The infallible diagnostic feature is the smell. Otter’s spraint smells sweet, like a fresh ﬁsh or like ﬁshmongers. The smell of a mink scat is sharp and repellent. A mink scat rapidly grows mould, which spraint never does.
When ﬁrst produced, spraint is black and moist with a coating of an oily looking slime. This will dry oﬀ, leaving a dry piece of “coke”. With age the dark colour fades, until the spraint goes grey, and then white, by which time it is just a small pile of ﬁsh shrapnel.
Spraint can vary from the usual black colour. In areas with crayfish significantly a part of their diet the astaxanthin in the crayfish turns the spraint pink.
Anal jelly is a misnomer for another secretion deposited by an otter. It looks like marmalade without the lumps of peel, and like marmalade it can vary in colour from golden orange, almost brown, (the bitter, Oxford sort), through a paler yellow (Golden Shred), to a greeny tone (lime?). There are no bones or fish bits, but it has the correct smell. Originally it was thought to be the neat secretion from the anal gland with which the otter coats its secretion, hence the name. Now it is thought to be the mucus lining of the gut, which acts as a lubricant and protection against all the sharp bones and undigested bits.
PATHS AND SLIDES
Otters keep their own distinctive narrow paths when crossing a bend in a river. They almost always spraint at one end or the other, and the passage through summer vegetation forms a neatly circular tube about 6 inches in diameter. Where they go back into the water there is sometimes a slide.
Otter tracks in snow
An otters footprints are distinctive. Firstly, its feet are large, as befits a swimming animal, over 50mm wide (2 inches) and a big dog otter’s print can be 90mm wide (3.5 inches). Otters have 5 toes, as do badgers, polecats and mink (all mustelids), whereas foxes, dogs and cats have only four. If the fifth toe does not have an impression, an otters padding is asymetrical and therefore recognisable.
All the toes are rounded, (teardrop shaped) and they are arranged in a semi circle round the foot, with the first toe opposite the fifth along the diameter, a pattern you can make with your fingers in a “piano playing posture”. Otters have blunt, short nails, so frequently these leave no mark.
The foot itself is similar in outline to a frogman’s flipper, a cone shape tapering towards the heel, but in firm mud the heel portion does not always show. Remember that an otters back feet are larger than its front feet, as are yours, and do not therefore suspect two otters too readily.
Otters usually bound, or canter, rather than walking or trotting left, right, left, right. This means that you find four pad marks close together, then a space, then another four, etc.
A raised area created by an otter to spraint upon. Usually by scraping together grass, mud, sand or gravel.
An otter will often eat out the main organs of a fish behind its head to obtain the best store of nutrients, as can be seen in this fish from the River Tone in the centre of Taunton, it is a typical sign of otter presence. Messy prey remains can sometimes be an indicator of the presence of cubs, as with these eel remains.
Mink scat is always tubular, about the diameter of a biro, and pointed at one or both ends. It usually contains some fur, as well as feathers and fish bones, and often shows a twisting spiral pattern. It smells foul.
Mink, being smaller, have smaller feet. Their toes are long and slender, useful for climbing trees, so the padding is rather star shaped, with the fingers spread.
A badger has big feet and five toes, but it has quite a different arrangement and foot shape. Its foot is a broad digger bucket, with all five toes, with long nails, arranged in a line along the front of the foot. The ball of the foot is a wide bar, at right angles to the direction of travel. You can make a similar pattern by running in bare feet across some wet sand, five toes at the front, and a broad mark behind them.