European Otters (Lutra lutra) suffered significantly in the UK and were virtually extinct in the 1960s. Their population density has increased since then. Although there are still only an estimated 10-11 thousand individuals in the wild today. It will therefore not come as a surprise that they are still classified as a near-threatened species; by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They are categorized as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and are fully protected in the UK under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Whilst European Otters are found in many of the waterways in the UK, for many people, seeing them in conservation centers is one of the only opportunities they get to see these fantastic animals. There is no substitute however to seeing them in their natural habitat. All of the images in this article are in the wild. Additionally, no baiting or disruption to the otter’s habitat or behaviors occurred to achieve these images.
Photography is a form of visual communication, and in its way raises public awareness of wildlife and nature. This article is written with this aim in mind. All of the photographs in this article are Copyright, and may not be used without express permission.
Mankind – Otters Worst Enemy
Historically, otters suffered across Europe due to the increasing intensity of farming during the 20th century. To add to this problem, during this period hunters/poachers illegally captured and killed otters in high numbers. Because of this, the otter population rapidly declined in the second half of the 20th century.
Despite their protected status, mankind remains the greatest threat to Otters in the UK. For example, reports in Scotland have included abhorrent behaviors by people such as:
-Camper van occupants disposing of their sewerage into waterways.
-Tourists attempting to block otter hides with debris for sport.
-Fishermen and poachers leaving hooks, nets, and other related debris around waterways.
-General littering and dumping of waste by the general public.
To give you a better idea of mankind’s impact on these animals, here is a fantastic little video from the International Otter Survival Fund:
The Eurasian Otter predominantly feeds on small fish and invertebrates. However, as carnivores, they will also tackle larger prey such as moorhens or ducks. They will even eat mammals such as rabbits if they get the opportunity.
In the UK European Otters live in rivers, and canals, as well as in large bodies of water such as lochs and ponds. As alluded to above, being opportunistic hunters, they will also venture into urban areas including fisheries or even ponds.
Size & Appearance
Otters are in the mustelid family of animals, which also includes weasels, badgers, ferrets, martens, minks, and wolverines. European otters have a dense double-coated fur coat. Typically this is dark brown on top and a lighter brown underbody. Though, they can appear almost black in color in the water. They are a typical mustelid shape with short legs and a muscular body. Their nose and eyes are either brown or black in color, and they have small rounded eyes and webbed feet. Another one of their prominent features is their long whiskers. In summary, they are perfectly evolved to live and hunt in their natural habitat.
Otters’ eyesight is acute both below and above the water, making them ideally suited to aquatic hunting. From personal experience, they appear very visually attuned to movement. In terms of size, they are typically 60-90cm (2-3 ft) long, weigh between (13-37 lbs), and stand on their 4 legs at about 30cm (12 in). The male otter is visibly larger than the female otter.
A semi-aquatic animal, they can hold their breath for around a minute to hunt. So when you see them in the wild you will regularly spot them surfacing to grab some air. Their metabolism is high, and consequently, they must eat a large portion of their body weight each day (12% per day for male otters during the winter). They are restless and playful animals and mainly hunt nocturnally. For this reason, your best chance to spot them in the wild is in the early morning.
Otters are typically solitary in nature. However, if the resources in an area allow, they are known to live in small family groups. Both male and female otters can be highly aggressive to others of the same or the opposite sex. Males in particular often show the wounds of fighting (picture left).
Courtship occurs over the course of a week, with cubs splitting from a family group at around 8-12 months.
In the wild, otters live to around 3-5 years. In captivity, though they are known to live to up to 17 years.
Their main natural predator in the UK is Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles, who will in particular target the cubs.
Where & When To Photograph
Because otters are so widespread, there are plenty of opportunities to spot them in waterways throughout the UK. Otters are active all year round. If you are lucky enough to live near a hot-spot, then this makes the job much easier. However, they are notoriously difficult to photograph due to their large territories, and that whilst they are active, they tend to be a long way offshore searching for food.
For most, wildlife parks are a guaranteed opportunity to see them. But, there is no comparison to seeing them behave naturally in the wild, plus of course, the satisfaction of getting shots even in difficult conditions. Photographing them in the wild then takes time and patience, and observation to start to understand and predict individuals’ behaviors.
If you are photographing them in the wild, do not disturb them or deliberately set them up near their holts. Apart from being illegal to interfere with their environment, it stresses the animal. Instead, set yourself up in areas where they may frequent, e.g. spraint sites. But, even then, stay at a reasonable distance and avoid any movement which will startle the animal.
Camera & Settings
A 400mm reach minimum is somewhat of a pre-requisite. From personal experience, I use a Canon EF100-400 USM with my Canon EOS 5D IV and depending upon where I am photographing a 1.4x teleconverter for the extra reach. I do find that the zoom capability is a bonus, because there have been times when I have had otters come very close to me, and even with a 100mm lens you can fill the frame.
I tend to photograph in auto-focus and on AI Servo so that I can continuously track movement. Many people use. center-point focus, I have found I get a better success rate using an expanded center point. I use speed priority as a general rule and set the speed based on the focal length of the lens as well as the amount of activity of the animal.
I shoot in speed priority, and depending on light conditions will be from 1/250s minimum, but preferably 1/500s if conditions permit. European Otters are not rapid-moving animals, but they are very fidgety and active.
Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain & Northern Ireland – ISBN: 978-1784272043 – 2020
Otters: Ecology, behavior, and conservation – ISBN: 978-0198565864 – 2008
Distribution: JNCC Data