Monday, 5 August 2013


lots of gear
 isn't Ellie lovely - sure beats holding trophy roach
The BBC have been busy making a series of films this last year with the challenging title “Britain’s Great Wildlife Recovery”, challenging because there are so many examples of decline. Many of us are aware of these sad stories and unlike most of the media where bad news seems to be the only news, there appears to be a reluctance among the TV wildlife execs to face up to the facts and accept that not all is well out in the countryside.

just one of the major problems

dramatic declines in water voles © Stewart Canham

otters aren't always good news © Stewart Canham
The output is improving however, with the ‘Springwatch’ genre starting to tell the truth and explore the bad news stories of decline in a more balanced way … and to be fair, I’m led to believe that this new series is going to do likewise, even if the London based exec. producer is much keener on all the content being ‘happy’. I’ll let you be the judge of the content of the programmes, to be shown on BBC 1 from Sunday 18th August at about 5pm. It’s a good ‘slot’ as we media types say, and the fact that the series will be showing lots of great British wildlife is a rare treat. The ‘River’ programme, including otters, is to be shown on Sept 7th.

classic otter country
my Christmas special on BBC 2 

I recently became involved in the series due to my long history of filming otters. I made the first ever wild otter film in Shetland in the early ‘80’s, a BBC One film that attracted an amazing audience of 17.3 million, a figure that highlights the appeal and charisma of this fascinating animal. I followed this up with a 50min film on them for BBC Two, the inspiring experience of living with them in the wilds becoming the subject of my first book.

my first book on these charismatic animals
Regardless of your attitude to otters, there is no doubt that their recovery since the bad old days when our environment was poisoned with pesticides is one of the great success stories of modern conservation. Here in Dorset, they have now been recorded in every river in the county and as far as we can tell, this recovery is purely a natural one.

it's exciting to see them back © Stewart Canham
‘Recovery’ in some other parts of the UK  have been achieved by dumping large numbers of captive bred otters into rivers that probably couldn’t support them in the first place and I for one believe that releasing apex predators into the wild without an environmental impact assessment shows so called ‘conservationists’ in a very bad light. For instance, in 1996, 20 otters were dumped all at once out of the back of a van into Norfolk’s River Waveney and 25 into the Wensum, not only sentencing some of the otters to death through overcrowding and starvation but even worse, destroying the environment and fish life on which they were meant to survive. The perpetrators should be ashamed.

large carp are one of the otters favourite meals
If you’re trying to make a living by breeding carp and running commercial fisheries, the success of the otter recovery is not the best news you’ve had this past few years! However, the appeal of these ‘playful’ monsters to the general public is so great that anglers must keep their hostile attitude under wraps if we’re not to alienate many of Britain’s wildlife enthusiasts. It is one thing to get the law changed on cormorants, a success to be applauded but it ain’t going to happen with otters so we have to find other ways to ensure they don’t destroy our sport and our livelihoods.

perfect fish hide away ... and otters!
Working hard on our rivers and lakes to create habitat for fish to breed and grow successfully is the way forward … and I’ve seen enough examples around the world during my fifty year career making wildlife films to know that nature, given a chance, will recover and do well. More fish in our rivers will ensure otters are less likely to raid our carp lakes and garden ponds … and it might also be wise to cease the highly questionable habit of removing ‘nuisance fish’ from carp lakes, for these fish might get eaten instead of our prize carp.

goldfish snack from our pond

another victim of a nocturnal raid

the sight I dreaded at dawn

I have plenty of sympathy for those who have suffered losses, for our two fish ponds in the garden have been destroyed by the furry beauties. There are no fish left, even the tiny one year old minnows being eaten last week.

Many of these points were included in my interview with the lovely Ellie Harrison on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset - she’s as charming in real life as she is on the tele - though whether the issues get aired on the TV is beyond her control, mine too … but I did try.
preparing for filming

Ellie going over the script with Stephen Moss

dawn on the River Stour and an otter hidden below
Filming took place over two days. I found a family of otters before dawn on day one, a mum and two cubs but by the time the crew arrived they had gone to ground. I had splendid views of them though, one resting on the waters edge within three feet of my boots. Despite their raids on our garden and years of filming them around the world, I still get a thrill whenever I’m lucky enough to watch them.

two cubs following mum

family squabbles

mum spotted me but didn't flee
The crew were in place by sunrise on day two and I’d already found them one of the cubs which they followed in the misty sunrise.

on the trail of a Dorset otter

heading downriver to another otter family
My friend Stewart Canham was helping us and found the second family downstream, so we took off in hot pursuit and they were able to film Ellie watching them, though our best opportunity, when the family came ashore to groom was screwed by two canoeists who refused to delay their journey upriver with abusive language. [Canoeists really do need to start respecting the law and working on their people skills!]

I prefer being behind the camera!

briefing by producer Stephen Moss

Ellie trying to make sense of my ramblings
Then it was my turn to have the cameras turned on me as Ellie asked me about my experiences with otters past and present. I rabbited on about filming them in Shetland and ranted about the situation today so no doubt producer Stephen Moss will face a challenge when it comes to editing!

I'm hoping it will be a good series
It will just be a short piece in a film about rivers so I hope it contributes  a little to a better understanding of the problems faced by them and actually mentions our poor old fish too, so often ignored by everyone, despite being a vital part of a river’s biodiversity.  I won’t be holding my breath.                    BBC 2 Sept 7th – 5pm.


  1. No mention of our poor old fish Mr Miles, the Bbc have edited it in thier favour.

  2. Sadly the BBC still ignore the cormorant issue. I emailed Countryfile twice recently to ask if they would run a piece about the effects of cormorant predation, to no avail.
    Last year Chris Packham and friends on Autumnwatch pondered where have all the freshwater eels gone, ignoring the Environment Agency figures showing that 26 to 43tonnes of eels are eaten by cormorants in England and Wales every year, and that the decline in eels corresponds with the protection of cormorants in 1981.

  3. Great blog. I love filming otters, and frequent Dorset and Scotland in the hope for a few shots. Sometimes I don't see an Otter for 6 days in Scotland. I will be buying the Track of the Wild Otter.