During the recent warm weather, it was nice to be able to get outside at lunchtime and feel the sun's promise that spring is on the way. The riverside walk alongside the River Wensum is an excellent place to spot some urban wildlife, whether it be kingfishers fishing by Whitefriars Bridge or otters skulking along the river edge by Cow Tower. It was certainly the case for the latter during early spring.
Towards the end of February, I had spotted a large dog otter below Foundry Bridge and the Compleat Angler pub. It quickly slipped into the water from the steps of the beer garden and dived below the bridge. Running (carefully!) across the road I could follow the bubbles on the other side until they disappeared – but unfortunately that was the last I saw of that otter on that occasion. As it had not resurfaced, presumably it made its way up a drain as the river bank in this area is made up of concrete and metal pilings, which act as a significant barrier for urban otters wanting to come on to land.
A couple of weeks later I took the opportunity to make the most of the warmer weather and spent my lunch break walking along the River Wensum. By one of trees near Cow Tower I noticed lots of ripples coming from the river edge; as I walked over to investigate I thought I saw a tail slip under the water. I followed the characteristic bubble trail and before long an otter popped up. Fully aware of my presence, this different, much smaller otter didn’t seem bothered and allowed me to get some up close photos and video – something I have managed elsewhere in the Broads but only with camera traps. This city slicker was much less timid than its country cousins. I returned the next day at the same time and sure enough there it was again!
The 1970s may have been groovy for most, but for our native otter those times were positively desperate. With pressures from pesticide poisoning, persecution and habitat loss, otters at this time were absent from Norfolk and the Broads and indeed nearly extinct from all of lowland Britain. Conservation efforts in the 1980s and 1990s reversed this saddening decline and have helped otters reclaim their former haunts.
Otters in Norfolk have made quite the resurgence in recent years thanks to these reintroductions. They are now widespread throughout the Broads, where I have had particular success at filming them in woodland nearby to Wayford Bridge on the River Ant – it wasn’t uncommon to film three otters at once! Elsewhere on the Broads I have had great views at NWT Alderfen Broad and the River Bure in Coltishall, and along the River Yare towards Bawburgh.
Considering the abundance of otters in Norfolk it is perhaps still surprisingly challenging trying to see one in the wild.
Considering the abundance of otters in Norfolk it is perhaps still surprisingly challenging trying to see one in the wild. When you do, it certainly makes your day and is a great indicator of a healthy river system. Having the opportunity to see these otters in the heart of our fine city during a lunch break is a unique chance to get up and close to these charismatic
mustelids, something much harder to achieve in the wider countryside. Dawn and dusk are usually the best times of day to spot one –
keep an eye out for piles of fish scales and mussel shells. Sometimes you might find an otter spraint (dung) along the river bank too; they are often dark and (don’t take my word for it) smell of jasmine tea – I’ll leave you to decide that one for yourself!
Ben Moore is Ecological Assistant at Norfolk Wildlife Services.
Header image by Gary Massey