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Otter News 1998

Otters return to UK rivers (Nov 16, 1998)
Oliver the otter-artist stars in S. African 'zoovaganzer' (CNN October 24, 1998)
Hungry whales prey on otters (BBC Oct 16, 1998)
Otters set for return to rivers (BBC Jun 8, 1998)
DNA tests track secret life of otters (Telegraph Jun 1, 1998)

News Index

Otters return to UK rivers

(Nov 16, 1998)

Otters are being encouraged to return to British rivers, after decades of being driven away by pollution and the destruction of their habitat.

This week sees the launch of a series artificial holts - the name given to an otter's nest - to hasten the mammals' return to their old haunts.

The holts are part of the Otters and Rivers Project, a joint initiative by Water UK and the Wildlife Trust.

The first holt, on the River Trent, at Stoke Bardolph, in Nottinghamshire, is due to be officially opened on Monday.

Brian Duckworth, chair of Water UK, says that since 1993 there has been an upsurge in the otter population, thanks to initiatives to clean up the rivers.

"The Otters and Rivers Project will bring otters back into Britain's waterways, where they belong," Mr Duckworth said.

"Otters can only survive in rivers which are free from pollution, and it is the responsibility of everyone in industry, the farming community, landowners and the public, to ensure that our rivers are kept clean so that this magnificent creature can once again inhabit Britain's rivers and wetlands."

The Otters and Rivers Projects aims by 2003 to have otter populations return to all of the river systems where the creatures have been recorded since 1960.

Close to extinction

Up until 1960, otters were plentiful in the United Kingdom's rivers, but by the late 1970s they had come close to extinction in most parts of England and Wales. This has been attributed to pollution, both from urban settlements along the river banks, as well as to chemical pesticides washed into the rivers from farmland.

Urban development has also cut down the number of places where otters can safely nest.

The provision of holts is part of a wider scheme to improve the otters' environment, says Otters and Rivers Project director Guy Corbett-Marshall.

"In the Trent area we have three otter project officers, supported by a group of trained volunteers who monitor the region's otter population," he said.

Original story

Oliver the otter-artist stars in S. African 'zoovaganzer'

(CNN October 24, 1998)

PRETORIA, South Africa (CNN) -- He is called Oliver and is hailed as the next best thing to Picasso and Salvador Dali -- at least in the world of animal artists!

While Oliver is a typical Cape Clawless Otter, the smudgy, damp art that he created for the Pretoria Zoo earlier this week is anything but.

Every year the zoo holds a "zoovaganzer" to raise funds for the animals.

"The process of selecting the potential artist is simple: Choose the competitors -- say an otter, a parrot or a gorilla -- supply them with canvas and watercolors and then see what happens.

This year it was Oliver's turn: His winning personality and natural curiosity made him the obvious choice -- other contestants simply drank the paint.

"But even Oliver's "curator," Brian Bailey, found it hard to persuade him to paint on demand.

Three large palettes of bright paint -- red, blue and yellow -- were put in his enclosure, surrounded by three large canvases.

Oliver, letting his naturally curious side get the better of him, came dangerously close to being painted himself.

At the end of a long morning watching Oliver walk through the paint, tip the colors over and even chew the canvas, three paintings were ready for inspection.

Full of color, grass, muddy water and paw and fur imprints, the paintings can't be described as masterpieces. And Oliver, obviously his own best critic, would agree.

After all his efforts, he selected his least favorite painting, dragged it into the water and washed away all trace of it.

One of his better works will be auctioned at the zoo on October 31.

Original story

Hungry whales prey on otters

(BBC Oct 16, 1998)

Researchers say the ocean's top predators have been forced to change their diet as a direct result of human-induced ecological change.

Killer whales in seas off the coast of Alaska are reported to be eating the world's smallest sea mammal, the sea otter, which they previously tended to ignore.

Writing in the journal, Science, the researchers say this is because their usual prey, sea lions and harbour seals, are dying out through over-fishing and altered fish migration patterns caused by global warming.

The researchers say the effect on sea otters is devastating: one killer whale can eat nearly 2,000 of them in a year.

The population of sea otters through large areas of western Alaska has dropped by about 25% a year since the phenomenon was first noticed in 1991, according to the report.

Threat to ecosystem

The killer whales' new eating habits are beginning to have a deeper - and potentially more dangerous impact on the environment - as their effects begin taking their toll on other levels of the food chain.

James Estes, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the study said: "A whole number of species are affected by what the sea otters do. Things that are rare can impact the ecosystem quite a bit."

Crucially, sea otters control the population of sea urchin, which strips kelp forests that many marine species need to survive.

With the number of sea otters dwindling, sea urchins have begun to flourish, in turn causing kelp forests of the western Alaska coastal ecosystem to disappear.

"I do think this is a huge conservation issue," said Mr Estes.

"The whole concept is to maintain an ecosystem and that is not being done in this one."

Killer whales - or orcas - are the largest member of the dolphin family.

Original story

Otters set for return to rivers

(BBC Jun 8, 1998)

Otters will return to every British river by 2010 after the government announced a £1m sponsorship deal with regional water companies.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher, announcing the funding at the Camley Street Nature Reserve in King's Cross, London, said: "The corporate championing of the otter is a milestone in the work of business in preserving biodiversity."

The deal has been financed by a three-year £1m grant by Water UK - formed to promote the water industry - and 10 regional water companies.

It is the biggest corporate sponsorship of an endangered species to date.

The money will establish task forces of volunteers to help with survey work and oversee programmes to build artificial holts to encourage breeding.

The money will also fund wetland habitat restoration.

New threat from sheep dips

Brian Duckworth, Chairman of Water UK, said: "Today, most people's experience of otters comes from books and films such as Tarka and Right of Bright Water.

"Unfortunately, both these stories have unhappy endings. By working with organisation likes the Wildlife Trusts, the Environment Agency and with the government, we can make sure this otter tale has a happy ending."

Otters came close to extinction in the 1960s, but have returned in larger numbers in recent years. Their decline was linked to pesticides, and the Wildlife Trusts warned that otters now face a new threat from sheep dips known as synthetic pyrethroids.

Mr Meacher also used the launch to announce a consultation paper, Making Diversity Happen, and pledged a government commitment to continuing to develop sustainable environments.

Original story

DNA tests track secret life of otters

(Telegraph Jun 1, 1998)

GENETIC fingerprinting techniques are helping scientists learn about the lives and habits of Britain's otters.

The reclusive animals are being tracked by DNA left in their droppings, known as spraints, which are collected at dawn once a month and sent to Aberdeen University for examination. It is the first time ever that DNA testing has been used on otters. The pilot project is allowing environmentalists to build up the most accurate picture yet of how the animals live.

The otter DNA technique, developed by Dr John Dallas, a senior research fellow at Aberdeen University, allows individual otters to be traced by where they leave their spraints during the night. It reveals their nocturnal habits, their numbers and the type of environment they favour and has shown that some otters travel up to 15 miles a night.

More than 30 individual otters have been identified by the project and followed for more than a year. Dr Dallas said: "This would have been impossible using any other means. The prospect of using this as a tool in animal conservation is an exciting challenge." The project is being led by the Environment Agency with help from wildlife trusts in Hampshire and Devon and an otter group in Somerset.

Tim Sykes, chief conservation officer for the Environment Agency in Hampshire, said: "This is the dawn of a new era for conservation. In 10 years' time it will be the norm for DNA to be used to learn about all sorts of nocturnal animals." Teams of volunteers collect the spraints at first light, preserve them in ethanol and pack them in boxes to be sent to Aberdeen. Scientists there have devised a way to isolate tiny remnants of the otters' gut linings that provide the evidence they need. Individuals can then be identified.

Over the past year a picture of otter numbers has been drawn up which will be used to see how well they recover in the south of England, where in some areas the species was almost extinct until recently. Surprisingly, the collection of the droppings is not an unpleasant task. Mr Sykes said: "They actually have quite a fragrant scent, not unlike jasmine tea."

Original story