Daisy Cave discusses the recent return of otters to Birmingham’s waterways
Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) are arguably amongst the West Midlands most elusive residents. Once widespread across the UK, they suffered extirpation (localised extinction) in the 20th century due to the use of bio-accumulative organochlorine pesticides (OCPs). Until the 1970s, OCPs were widely used to protect crops from insects. However, they are highly toxic to humans and wildlife, and are resistant to degradation. Poor drainage and illegal waste deposition mean that harmful chemicals, including pesticides and household detergents, can readily enter waterways—causing extreme harm to the wildlife that relies on them. Thankfully, conservation projects led by the Canal River Trust, such as installation of coir rolls of marginal vegetation and widespread dredging, have improved the water quality in UK canals. Steadily, a local otter population is now returning to Birmingham.
There have been rumoured sightings of otters across the city’s formally industrial canals since the turn of the millennium. According to Jacob Williams of the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, “[otters] are solitary animals and have large territories of up to 40 km. This, combined with the fact that they are crepuscular animals (active at dawn and dusk), means they aren’t often seen. We do see lots of otter spraint (otter dung), especially under bridges. They use it to mark their territory, so will leave it in places where it won’t be washed away—you can see it all around the canal paths if you look for it”. For almost two decades, eyewitness accounts and the prevalence of spraint failed to be backed up by photographic evidence. However, at the end of 2019, the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust (https://www.bbcwildlife.org.uk/) finally achieved a long sought-after breakthrough in capturing video footage of an otter along Birmingham’s canals. The recording was captured by a camera trap outside the Mailbox, in the centre of the city!
So, why did it take so long to successfully photograph otters in Birmingham? The most likely explanation is two-fold. Firstly, the otter population certainly seems to be growing. This inevitably increases the chance of sightings—there are even reports of pairings in some areas. In addition to population growth, we have seen a more concerted effort to photograph the species, with an increased network of camera traps placed along Birmingham’s waterways; there are even cameras trying to record otters near campus!
Although it is fantastic that otters are returning to the West Midlands, there is an ever-present threat to their survival: pollution. Whilst the onset of COVID-19 reduced travel throughout the city, any potential benefits to wildlife have since been overshadowed by a detrimental increase in waste, particularly from the rise in cleaning product use and washing. Temporary closure of local waste centres caused an increase in illegal fly-tipping, often onto critical green spaces, causing widespread damage to ecosystems. This issue was highlighted by Williams: “We need the right habitats and conditions for otters to thrive. Insects hold up our ecosystems. If we have a healthy insect population, then other wildlife can flourish”. As students, it is possible to take small actions to help both the otter population and the broader environment. For example, planting wildflowers on windowsills or in gardens will help to strengthen the city’s green corridors. On a larger scale, the Wildlife Trust strongly encourages volunteering to improve the state of local waterways: “Regular litter picking is important. Our HQ is on the canal and we do regular litter picks with volunteers from our boat (the Poly Rodger, made from recycled plastic) which anyone is welcome to join in with”. On-campus opportunities are also available through the University of Birmingham Conservation Society.
The ecological breakthrough demonstrated by otters is testament to nature’s resilience in overcoming man-made barriers. However, their struggle also highlights the need for us to do more in protecting the natural world, if all parts of the ecosystem are to prosper.
*Thank you to Jacob Williams, Community Engagement Officer at the Wildlife Trust, for the support whilst writing this article. Further questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Otter on trap camera in Birmingham (Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust, 2020)
From Issue 21