The fisherman naturalist is needed even more today

Otters aren'�t always foiled by wild fish - John Bailey holds a recently-caught tench bearing the sc

Otters aren'�t always foiled by wild fish - John Bailey holds a recently-caught tench bearing the scars of otter attacks. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Once again, I'm commending an older book to you. It was written by one of our great East Anglian angling authors, Anthony Buxton.

The Fisherman Naturalist was published by Collins in 1946, but copies are regularly available on the internet. My own, in my most used bookshelf, is still read and re-read, even though I acquired it as a kid back in the early 60s.

It is an extraordinary mix of country lore and country love. Buxton was a great angler, a great writer and a man who really studied every aspect of the aquatic world and drew some brilliant conclusions from what he saw at the reed roots, as it were. Even though the book is way over half a century old, it is still compelling stuff.

I'd love to have half the ability of Anthony Buxton. Perhaps as we move further away from a real intimacy with the country, there won't be authors like him, or even Henry Williamson, again.

However. on Tuesday, June 20, I watched the Natural World on BBC 2 at 8pm. Perhaps you did. As an angler, as presumably you are, you should have done because it was a programme about otters.


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So much of that hour was good. Charlie Hamilton James was an engaging presenter, a great cameraman and a very intelligent interpreter. There was much to commend, apart from this: Hamilton James commented that, aquatic as they are, otters spend at least 80pc of their time on land and can run up to speeds of nearly 20mph. These fascinating facts were left dangling in the air and not really followed up in any way. Speaking on behalf of us anglers, this really was more than an omission. Read on...

On Wednesday, June 21, I was on the river with two fishing friends. I started Dave off at The Bridge and put Dick around a quarter of a mile beneath him. Dick was catching small stuff on maggots every cast, but for Dave, sport was unexpectedly slow. I was expecting him to catch a chub or two at the very least but the rod tip never moved. I was scratching my head over this when, unexpectedly, the answer popped up behind some rocks on the far bank. We found ourselves staring into the deep brown eyes of a large dog otter. It studied us for a while, slid into the water and disappeared downriver, passing Dick on the way.

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The lads were both excited: it was their first wild otter sighting. For the river, it was something else altogether.

After the otter had gone, Dick carried on fishing. He didn't get a single bite. I wandered off after the otter and over a mile and a half, realised that every single chub I had seen previously had vanished, too. It was like the river was an aquatic tomb. At the end of the beat, I came across a freshly-killed rabbit with the otter marks around. This was significant.

On the walk back to meet the boys again, I noticed other interesting signs. There were three different remains of waterfowl, water hens probably, here and there in the reeds.

Let's go back to the Natural World. All along my patch here in East Anglia, I would say that the main diet of otters consists of crayfish, waterfowl and even land creatures like rabbits. The number of fish that I see dead on the bankside is negligible. And remember, I'm out on rivers and lakes 12 hours each day virtually every day of the week. I'm not claiming any amazing tracking prowess, just reporting what I see.

What do we make of all this? Firstly, if you fish wild, unfenced, non-commercial waters never forget that a dead river or lake could have been visited by otters before you have arrived. The otter effect can have a deadening effect on sport for at least six hours or more after they have left. Wild fish have amazing survival techniques and can easily avoid otter predation once they understand the threat otters pose.

You have to ask why the general public are so ignorant about the way that otters actually make their living. Of course, the BBC likes to create a cuddly, Beatrix Potter world around our wildlife and it isn't like that. I'm amazed the RSPB, and I'm a member, are not more concerned. Let's take great crested grebes, a favourite species of most birders. There are hardly any left along the valley that I patrol and on the lakes that I fish and look after. Otters, almost certainly, are the main reason.

It's generally considered only anglers moan about the country's favourite animal, the otter. What I'm saying is that if you are an angler for wild fish in wild waters, they don't prove much of a threat. What I'm also saying is that as a birder I should be far more worried about the impact of the otter resurgence on the wildfowl of our region. As anglers we have to use our eyes, open our minds and perhaps educate the somewhat misled general public into a new way of thinking.

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