North Devon in 100 Objects: 85. The Otter

A scene of an otter swimming under water behind a fish.

The otter has become an icon for North Devon. Firstly, because this charismatic creature is more common here than in many other parts of England; and secondly because Henry Williamson’s 1927 classic, Tarka the Otter, is set in the land of the Two Rivers:  the Taw and Torridge.  Northern Devon has enthusiastically accepted the name of Tarka Country.

Otters are medium sized mammals, typically 60 cm to 90 cm long and weighing 5-10 kg, the males larger than the females.  Otters are mustelids related to stoats, weasels and badgers.  They are predominantly aquatic, favouring fresh water, although they will also swim in salt water. North Devon’s otters are occasionally to be seen around the coast and in the river estuaries.  Mainly nocturnal but occasionally seen around dawn, they are not easy animals to observe.  Easier to find are otter spraints, piles of droppings left to mark out their territories, which can extend over several kilometres.   Otters need to eat over 10% of their body weight each day.  They are carnivores, with small fish the staple of their diet.  They will also take crayfish and in summer, small birds.  At the coast, they are partial to crabs.

In the 1960s, otter populations crashed as a result of the accumulation of toxins in their bodies.  As effectively the top aquatic predators, they were particularly vulnerable to this.  Unlike most of lowland England, North Devon’s otter population did not die out completely.  After becoming a protected species in 1981 they began to recolonise the rest of the country from strongholds like North Devon.

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