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Otters in the Outer Hebrides

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Otters are probably best described as usually being un-obtrusive and are easily over-looked. They often spend long periods of time resting underground in their holts or above ground at lie-ups. Even when actively feeding they can be difficult to see as they may only be at the water's surface briefly before diving in search of food or may hunt amongst the sea weed where they blend in incredibly well. Luckily they do leave plenty of signs of there where-a-bouts and these can be very useful for determining how active an area is.

Otters usually stick to a territory and within this they'll have favourite feeding areas which may be linked by routes over land. These routes are often used day after day creating well marked trails that can become very defined and even resemble sheep tracks. These trails can be easily distinguished from sheep trails if you follow one. They'll almost inevitably lead to water; sometimes passing through pools and often have grass over hanging them so they form tunnels. They also usually have important points marked with spraints e.g. where the trail enters fresh water; where the trail goes in or out of the sea. If the site is being used at the time the path will be well defined and there'll be fresh spraints.

 

Scent is very important in the Otter's world and as such they leave scent markings in important areas to them. If a location is very important and used throughout the year the spraints can build into mounds which will be brighter green than the surrounding land due to the rich fertilising effect of the droppings. If you're not sure whether you have found an Otter spraint sniff it. This isn't as revolting as it sounds; if it's an Otter then it should smell musky and have a distinct fishy scent. It's not an unpleasant smell although distinctive.

Active holts are also marked with spraints around the entrance, to let other Otters know that the hole is occupied. A territory will contain more than one holt and they may be located almost anywhere within about a kilometre of the shore. Sometimes old rabbit burrows may be taken over but they do extra excavation work themselves too. In the Outer Hebrides they can be right on the shore, built into a sandy bank or excavated from the peat. Where the occupied holt is also depends on what stage of life an Otter is at. Natal holts are usually very well hidden and away from the shore line whilst temporary resting holts are often strewn with spraints and can be quite obvious with well marked trails leading to their entrance.

Another sign to look out for, especially along sandy shores is foot prints. An Otter print can be distinguished from dog paw prints by the number of toes. A dog print will show four toes pointing forwards whilst an Otter will show five. The fifth, outer toe is often faint but once you get used to them, the print usually appears much more rounded and less pointed than a dog's paw print.

Otters may have their cubs at any time of the year in the Outer Hebrides. The young stay in the natal holt for the first two months and remain with the female for around a year. The dog Otter does not help with raising the young and only comes together with the female to mate.

The best places for seeing Otters is usually in tidal sea lochs with plenty of sea weed for their favourite prey items to hide in. Although the sea is usually a richer environment for Otters to feed in than fresh water lochs (and so occur in denser numbers) Otters also require fresh water to clean their coats. Unlike seals, Otters don't have an insulating layer of fat and keep them selves warm by trapping a layer of air in their fur. It is therefore vital that an Otter has ready access to fresh water so that it can maintain the quality of its fur.

The Outer Hebrides are an excellent place for seeing these superb animals. If you would like to learn more or increase your chances of finding one please have a look at our day trips.

Otter Day Trips: Western Isles Wildlife offer specialist day trips to search for Otters at 50 per person (minimum of 2 people or 100 for the day). We have a very good success rate at locating Otters as we have the most up to date information on their location and site activity levels. We shall certainly see signs, learn what to look for and provide lots of information on where best to go when searching for yourself. For more information or to book a trip please contact Steve on 01870 620241 or 07867 555971. You can also email me at: steveduffield@hebrides.net