Tuesday, 26 March 2013


           Wildlife Film Maker Killed by Otter – from Sleep Deprivation

28yrs old and a family treasure - killed by an otter in mid afternoon
I can believe the headline because I’m that victim. The time is 02.45 and the otter is just outside the window right now, eating the last of our golden orfe. I have tried to keep it away with a six foot fence and by lighting the pond, even shining a torch at the ‘playful’ little otter as it runs around our garden but every night this last week it has found a way in, keeping me awake in my futile attempts to protect our fish. It’s all over now, the last fish has just been eaten, I’m exhausted and the otter will go hungry.
just nine inches long - poor little fish

the children's pet fish
just orful - sorry - sick joke
a prize rudd left for dead
It is distressing and sad when fish that have grown up as our children’s pets are killed, especially when a healthy ecosystem is destroyed. The pond was a vibrant haven of life, native fish such as rudd breeding successfully, weed growth flourishing, the surface alive with dragonflies, damselflies and even mayflies, aquatic life flourishing, fed on by mallard ducklings and minnows dived on by kingfishers. Now it’s all gone and the situation is deeply disturbing.

home sweet home or otter heaven?
a wildlife haven
under siege last year
midnight feast
the remains of a once vibrant ecosystem - heartbreaking
The final act was when the otter absolutely trashed the place, ripping up lilies in order to eat the last few minnows. I feel sympathy for an otter that is so hungry it has to hunt minnows. I also realise that my losses are nothing compared to those that are trying to make a living running carp fisheries and farming fish. There are big problems out there and I naturally ask why?

chomping on a grayling c. Stewart Canham
It’s easy to suggest that the increase in the numbers of otters leading to competition for territory and food is a contributory factor and more than likely it is. For a more significant cause look no further than the cormorant, emptying the River Stour of silver fish so that this young otter just outside my window tonight has had to travel a mile from the river, over the A31, up a little stream across the fields and over a six foot fence just to look for something to eat.

an Anglers Mail report - the dangers are real
Adding to the problem is the 95% decline in eel numbers, a favourite food of otters. We can’t change the fact that otters are fish eaters and that they are hungry. We can only hope that the government changes the law regarding the right to protect our rivers and lakes from the ravages of the hordes of hungry cormorants.

as appearing in the RSPB's Birds Magazine
If we accept the scientific evidence that each of the 23,000 cormorants that travel from the continent each winter eat a pound of fish a day, then it is also easy to accept that removing 23,000 pounds of our native wildlife a day every day throughout the winter is surely un-sustainable, especially in the long term. It is already having a detrimental effect on our biodiversity.

Then we have the non-native signal crayfish destroying fish recruitment by eating their eggs, an Oxford University Study on the Thames calculating that there are 10,000 crays per half mile of river. Now that is simply depressing.

Red for danger c. Stewart Canham
one down, millions to go c. Ton Dopp
Worse still, it seems that most wildlife conservation organisations are either ignorant or are in denial that our rivers face serious problems and when I try to explain what is going on, they say I am wrong. If they had observed the declines that I have witnessed these past thirty years, they would be moved to tears like me. As I’ve said before, it takes ten years for a roach to grow to 2lbs and two minutes for a cormorant to eat it, so we’re running out of time – fast!

the king of fishers c. Charlie Hamilton James
down the hatch c. Roger Cresswell
Being a lover of all wildlife, I wrote to the RSPB’s Chief Executive, Mike Clarke. I have been a member for over fifty years and ran their Film Unit for five years but when I described what was happening out there and the loss of fish eating birds, [three local pairs of Great Crested Grebes for starters], he as good as told me I was lying. In fact, despite telling me so, he had no evidence that grebes weren’t in decline because when I checked with the British Trust for Ornithology they told me that there hasn’t been a breeding survey since 1975. I was disappointed by his dismissive attitude and alarmed that just because it’s got feathers, he’s prepared to invent facts to protect the cormorants’ reputation. I reminded him that there are lots of fish eating species out there and some might already be struggling through lack of prey.
big but thin as a rake, caught on a 10mm boilie while barbeling

predator eats predator

bitterns c. Val Smith
big bills but lovely birds c. Niall Benvie
Sadly, we have to accept that most wildlife enthusiasts aren’t even aware that fish life is wildlife and that it plays an important part in our freshwater ecosystems. It’s up to us anglers to join the conservationists, to change their attitudes, to educate them about life underwater … and the sooner we do so the better. As a contribution, the attached film attempts to explain some of the facts. I plan to do a lot more, but this is a start … and don’t knock me for suggesting that the return of the otter is a conservation success story with few parallels because it is. The otter is a problem because the freshwater environment is in trouble and they are hungry but you have to accept that most folk are excited if they see one and so am I, even in the garden! It’s a shame for all of us that because we have filled the countryside with carp, they’ve become the otters’ favourite food.

one of our big carp - pulled out of the pond into the stream
another night of killing

As many of you are aware, the thing that has upset a lot of anglers is the thoughtless release of large numbers of captive bred otters into an ecosystem that might not be able to support them, especially after the 95% decline in eels. There should be a law in place that allows Natural England to insist on an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ before any release to protect the balance of nature and the otters, because the increasing incidents of otters killing each other due to lack of space is alarming. Deaths on roads have increased a lot too. Releasing an apex predator into the wild should require a license. We should push for that, not seek to control their numbers and shoot ourselves in the foot. No one will condone the killing of otters, however valid it appears to be.

Otters are one of the UK’s most popular animals and my wife Sue suggests that I may be partially responsible because in 1982 I made the first ever film on wild otters for BBC1. It attracted an audience of a staggering 17.3 million and it’s ironic that they were so rare then that I had to travel all the way to Shetland to film them. Now one is outside in the garden, eating the last of our fish.

great animals but trouble for fish c. Stewart Canham

Everyone is claiming that no further releases are taking place but it seems clear that this is a lie. Now there is a report that otters are having re-productive problems due to hormone disrupting chemicals in the water. So maybe the much celebrated return of the otter is reaching a natural watershed? There are no easy answers!


  1. Well put Hugh. Fair words well spoken. Sustainability is a word that many dont understand in all contexts!

  2. god and i thought the U.S was bad, it seems like your politicians just don't give a damn about the environment

  3. I'd be interested to know how Charlie Hammilton James feels about the otter situation. Is he all for otters no matter what the circumstances or does he care about the overall picture more. I think to have any chance of making a difference we need more known people from outside the fishing world to stand up and fight with us

  4. I know exactly how you feel Hugh. The same happened to me, the worst part was the senseless killing with carp that had been pets for years just hauled up the bank. I tried chicken netting but found electric fencing the best deterrent. In mid Wales they are so plentyfull there isn't a single lake unaffected. I am not a hater of the otter but feel as you do that the ecosystem is not ready for such a voratious predator. As you probably already know what devastation it can cause to water birds. I feel their numbers need to be controlled as the balance is being tilted to far.

  5. Very well put Hugh. A very intelligent and thought-provoking article. A far cry from the useless and totally counter-productive "kill 'em all" articles and blogs you sometimes read online.

    I'm not anti-birds or anti-otters but it seems impossible to have a dialogue or discussion about fish. The poor old fish doesn't stand a chance against the well-oiled "cuddly otter" and "fluffy-feathered friend" PR machine.

    Otters = good.
    Cormorants = good.
    Fish = Who cares. They're only fish.
    Anglers = Weirdos who care about fish.

    What surveys were carried out prior to the release of so many captive-bred otters? Were there any? Silver fish stocks appear to have plummeted in the past 20-30 years. Eels have fallen by 95%. On the one hand we're told our rivers have never been healthier but on the other hand they don't appear to hold as many fish as they used to. Something doesn't quite add up.

    What did they suppose the otter would eat? What do the RSPB suppose the thousands of cormorants eat every day? Is there no imbalance in the predator-prey relationship?

    How many otters were released in the far South West of England? I only ask because they never died out here at all. There would have been no reason to release any. Yet, I never heard of fisheries getting visited by otters in the '80s and '90s? Why so many now?

    Beavers will be next... I know they don't eat fish but just look at all the 'trials' and beavers currently being held in 'captivity'. You can't tell me they aren't already being released. No doubt 'accidentally'... Then lo and behold in a few years time they'll start to perform a 'miraculous' comeback... They'll be 'wild' of course. Escapees who have miraculously bred... And not captive-bred that were released without knowledge or permission, honest...

  6. Great piece Hugh. It has just given me the final push to join the Angling Trust. I've had my reservations previously but after reading your latest entry I've decided my personal view is secondary to the greater good and joined online. It took literally two minutes.

  7. The gravel pits of south west london and reading where I once used to fish were abundant with roach 25 years ago, thay are all practically barren and have been for at least 15 years, those that still hold a few roach have winter santuaries where the roach spend the winter under pipes, ditches and culverts usually under roads. Creating these types of artifical environments would be a help.

    Well done Hugh for putting the film together, maybe its time to link the two Hugh's (the fish fight one), because its more of this type of publicity which will see public opinion move in the right direction. Very refreshing to see a wild life documentry which shows it how it is and not the usual factless, yet wonderous coffe table photography usually served up by the BCC these days.


  8. Hugh

    I'd like to say that the Otter film you did in '82 is my all time favourite Wildlife film.

    I'm sorry that your fish have been eaten, but please let me tell you why i think your views on this are wrong.

    You say(with regard to your pond) that a 'beautiful ecosystem has been destroyed'.
    Let's get the facts right. It's a man-made (although species rich) habitat stocked with non-native pet fish.
    My man made ponds are species rich entirely down to the lack of large predatory alien fish.
    A fish free pond is richer from water beetles, dragonflies, damsels, newts, frogs, etc etc.
    Far from 'Destroying' your ecosystem, 'your' ecosystem should be vastly improved by the removal of fish.
    The same 'cuddly' attitudes you claim wildlife people hold are mirrored by you with regard to your pet fish.

    The fact that Lutra lutra is back on most rivers is fantastic news!

    1. Some very good points made here. As a wildlife-loving angler I agree with Hugh that most wildlife-loving people have no concern for fish - they can't see them so easily as they can see birds and (less often) mammals, and don't seem to care about them as much as they deserve.
      But maybe Hugh has fallen into his own trap (I know it's not actually a trap, this is just a turn of phrase) in overlooking the invertebrate wildlife - as valuable, interesting and ecologically necessary as any other.
      And as a wildlife-loving angler, I am utterly delighted at the return of otters!

  9. Otter eats Fish......SHOCK HORROR.

    I'm afraid you are a deluded fish obsessed individual.

    Otters preferable and have priority to your silly little garden pond and goldfish

  10. hi hugh
    Im so sorry you had to see your pond and its fish be pulled apart buy this animal.
    My father had a pond for many years he grew koi carp from babies. he has since moved house, but I still worry about those fish. The anglers need to make a stand before we have no fish left at all. Its disgusting the way nobody thinks fish are important. Without fish in the rivers and lakes, what would the government do? they would loose millions of pounds without fishermans fees, rod licence. im sure when all the money dries up something will then be done. but it might be too late.

    Miss Kaylie Mansfield

  11. Amazing captures and blog here! I initially noticed your "Merganser vs Pike" shot. That looks like a huge (don't they have teeth?) fish staring down its captor's throat!

    So the bird was really able to win the struggle and gulp down that huge fish okay?? Does the prey put up a good fight, if eaten, does the unlucky pike get swallowed wriggling/alive all the way as well?!


  12. Nice balanced piece, but with one stand-out exception - why are so many anglers convinced that the otters resurgence is down to them being bred and released?!
    Look to the other "apex predator" that is doing so well since the banning of certain pesticides - the buzzard. Nobody is breeding and releasing them, and nobody is suggesting that there are wildlife activists are doing so either. They are quite capable of breeding and multiplying on their own.
    And so the same goes with otters. They breed, and spread, quite unaided. The limiting factors to the population size are food, territories, and persecution.
    All three factors have changed since the last time otters were last abundant in this country. i.e. there are now supplemented sources of food (as suggested the countryside is now full of artificial fish stocks).
    And so territories are also different, and now encompassing goldfish-filled ponds as well as riverbanks.
    And nobody uses otter hounds anymore.