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John Bailey: Otters and anglers: a debate that goes back to Izaak Walton

PUBLISHED: 15:49 05 February 2018

Two unmarked East Anglian chub, fish that have learnt to escape the otter threat. Picture: John Bailey

Two unmarked East Anglian chub, fish that have learnt to escape the otter threat. Picture: John Bailey

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In his Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton was absolutely venomous about otters and their impact on fisheries. Three hundred and fifty years later a large percentage of my emails, mail, texts and phone calls revolve around otters, a letter from Peter Norton very recently being typical.

Spot the cormorant - this was taken along the mid Wensum Valley. Each one of these birds takes in excess of a pound of fish each and every day. Picture: John Bailey Spot the cormorant - this was taken along the mid Wensum Valley. Each one of these birds takes in excess of a pound of fish each and every day. Picture: John Bailey

Peter has been chairman of Wroxham and District Angling Club for the past seven years and goes on to say that the club has suffered badly in the past from otter predation. He continues that it was heartbreaking to see all the dead fish in and around his waters, a sentiment I can only sympathise with. Peter, I’ve been in tears myself at the sight of wonderful barbel, tench and carp taken by otters over the years.

Peter goes on to detail the vast expense and effort Wroxham Anglers have expended in fencing several of the venues that they control. Peter also asks, given this extraordinary and onerous burden, whether there are grants available for clubs to tap into if they wish to fence their waters. I’m happy to say that the Angling Trust can help out if you go to their website. There is a development fund available for clubs in this situation.

Where do I stand? Can I possibly make any sense of this debate which is overheating the angling community? As a naturalist as well as a fisherman, I’m not a great fan of otter fences on aesthetic grounds and because I feel they impede the natural flow of wildlife. However, if a club or a syndicate, for example, controls a smaller, shallower water where there are big non-natural fish living, then a fence is almost an essential. Otters find it much easier to hunt where there are big fish that haven’t been naturally bred and where there aren’t extreme depths in which they can hide. It’s also true to say that naturally bred fish were also targeted by otters before they woke up to the danger posed. It is for this reason that many of the North Norfolk estate lakes, for example, were wiped out a dozen years ago. The rudd, tench and carp there had no experience of otters and were, if you like, sitting ducks.

It is the same on the rivers. I think it’s true to say that when otters were newly introduced, many of the barbel and chub simply didn’t recognise otters as the fish killers they are. In those early days, serious damage was wreaked and I can remember being heartbroken at some of the sights I saw on the riverbank. I’d often drive away without even setting up my gear. However, it’s 14 months since I’ve seen a Wensum chub eaten by an otter. On the stills that I patrol daily, it’s over two years since I’ve seen a tench, carp or bream killed, even on unfenced lakes.

So what’s going on? On many of our smaller, shallower carp lakes, fish swim safely behind otter fences. On many of our larger, wilder waters and along the rivers, many of the big fish there have learnt to cope with the otter menace. This is why otters have increasingly turned to eating wildfowl, crayfish and every sort of smaller mammal. As a naturalist, this pains me. I’m amazed that more birders haven’t picked up on the almost complete demise of coots, for example, down the Wensum Valley. On lakes where there used to be 300 pairs last century, it’s now rare to see more than five or six birds. And don’t for a moment think that the decline in water voles is down to lack of habitat, as we’re often told. There are hundreds of miles of perfect water vole habitat in East Anglia, it’s just that in many places, they are being eaten by mink, of course, but otters equally.

As far as fish go, this all sounds fine and dandy. Big, valuable carp are increasingly protected behind otter fences and larger, wild fish are learning to play the game. As I’m repeatedly saying, though, an important part of the mix is being ignored here. On our natural waters, recruitment of small fish is at an all time low, almost completely because of predation by a vastly-increased population of cormorants. There isn’t a fish between two ounces and two pounds in the country that is safe. Many anglers don’t believe this because they are not on their waters pre-dawn. You’ve got to get there before the sun rises to realise the damage that is being done to lakes and rivers that you think you know and love.

It’s great that Peter is a committed, energetic and active chairman of a great club. I think all anglers need to follow his lead. We’ve got to shake off our apathy, we’ve got to open our eyes and we’ve got to do something now if the natural side of angling is going to continue into the future. I stand with Izaak. I’m not keen on otters, but big fish and otters have always coexisted. It’s cormorants that are bringing us to our knees.

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