James Williams showcased the work of the Somerset Otter Group in a presentation to the conference hosted by the International Otter Survival Fund in Edinburgh. The topic for the day was damage to anglers’ fish stocks, not only by otters, but also by cormorants and saw-billed ducks. This is a topic we have considerable experience of, and we helped the Institute of Fisheries Management host a similar day at Cannington College last year. In his talk, he explained our ongoing survey efforts to assess the true strength of our widespread population. As one of the first areas to get the otter back after the major national decline, Somerset demonstrates that the population is self-regulating, and that the territorial nature of this species causes the numbers to plateau out at a remarkably low density. The statistics also show that this recovered but sparse population is very fragile, and that it suffers major setbacks from time to time, setbacks which would reduce the population below a sustainable threshold if they were to occur in consecutive years.
Other major points to emerge were that the anglers’ problems are different in extensive, natural river fisheries from those in intensively stocked commercial ponds and lakes. In the rivers, the continued absence of the keystone predator over many years resulted in a fish population with a skewed age-range structure and a lack of balance between species. It will require time to sort things out, and of course there are other problems such as siltation, and pollution in solution, which is one of the things the Cardiff team are addressing in the otters we send for post mortem. The intensive ponds require protective fencing if possible. This is expensive, but amazingly, it was disclosed that the pot of money, that the Environment Agency has put by for this for the last three years, has never been fully claimed. Which in my view totally destroys the validity of those anglers who are baying for the culling of these still rare animals, but cannot be bothered to get a fencing grant. Happily, hereabouts, many fishers seem more sensible, and SOG has been able to help 3 different groups get such a grant in the last year.