Otter Survey Training
A couple of weeks ago I found myself arguing with the sat nav in the middle of Dorchester. OK, so that doesn’t sound very wild, (even though keeping up with the sat nav trying to deal with road closures can feel pretty wild at times) but I was on my way to learn about something very wild indeed.
You may have recognised from previous blog posts (here and here) that I am rather fond of these illustrious mammals. During our time in Scotland last summer, we were lucky enough to catch our first ever glimpses of them in the wild. That first fleeting glimpse in the gloaming soon turned into more frequent views of them hunting, chomping on fish, and lolling, care-free, amongst sun-dried seaweed. By the end of our time working on the campsite, we were well and truly spoilt with otter sightings, in fact most mornings whilst replying to numerous emails and booking enquiries, I could watch an otter or two diving into the Loch right outside the office window, where they would stay for a good hour or so.
I’d gotten pretty proficient at otter spotting in Scotland, I could even make out their low-slung shape in the water, nostrils just raised slightly above the surface, as we drove past in the van. But I knew it would be an altogether different game back down south: here otters dwell in the thick cover of rivers as opposed to exposed sea lochs. Here they become more elusive, secretive and well-hidden and I was desperate to improve my otter spotting skills and increase my chances of seeing them closer to home.
Luckily, the Dorset Mammal Group (DMG), were looking for volunteers to help survey various sites throughout Dorset, to gain a better idea of how otters were coping throughout the county. Obviously, I answered the call and signed myself up for the Otter Survey training workshop, which is why I found myself in deepest Dorchester, armed with my trusty notepad and pen, ready to get a bit more otter savvy.
It turns out there are quite a few other otter spotters within the Dorset area, and I was greeted by a packed room, full of eager otter enthusiasts keen to contribute to the survey. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly, it was a great chance to meet other people, both professional ecologists and amateurs with a keen interest like myself.
The talk was led by Kenneth Hutchinson, DMG’s “resident otter expert” and in charge of the otter survey for the group. I’d spent time chatting with Ken via email over the summer and it was evident he knew his stuff but hearing him actually talk about otters was quite inspiring. It was clear, not only through his dedication to them, but the way he spoke of spending time with them in the wild that he loved otters.
As well as lots of technicalities, health and safety messages, and field signs there were plenty of personal anecdotes about time spent in the field which made for an interesting and insightful presentation. I certainly left inspired to pay more attention when I’m out walking to clues and signs I might have otherwise missed.
As well as chatting about what to look for and how to keep ourselves safe, there was also a strong emphasis on how to keep the river safe. The importance to Check, Clean, Dry, both ourselves and our equipment was strongly highlighted. This campaign helps prevent the contamination of river habitats from the introduction of invasive flora and fauna to the delicate river eco system. With 12 different rivers in Dorset, cross contamination could easily occur so great care should be taken to prevent this. Something all river users, not just otter surveyors, need to be aware of.
Alongside the power point we were given handouts, otter skulls were passed around the table, as well as a plastic Tupperware container filled with otter poo! Yep, actual otter spraint. Now, I’ve heard people say that otter spraint smells faintly of Earl Grey tea, that it’s a soft smell with a delicate finish. After sticking my nose in that tub and inhaling a decent whiff, I would like to clarify that although it wasn’t at all gag inducing, there was nothing particularly Earl Grey like about it. It smelt like fish, nothing more, nothing less, just - fishy (not surprising considering that the majority of an otter’s diet comprises of fish).
So, with a nose filled with fish, an awareness of the Check, Clean, Dry campaign and a head filled with more ottery knowledge then you could shake a stick at I left Dorchester feeling both inspired and excited.
I’m so keen to get stuck into exploring the rivers of Dorset this summer in search of possibly, my all time, favourite mammal.