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  • Wayne Gourlay

Otter Spotting

Updated: Mar 19

We are spoiled for choice with amazing wildlife here in the Scottish Highlands. From Golden eagles soaring high above open hills to Red Squirrels scurrying through the canopy of pine woodlands, there is bountiful choice when it comes to wildlife encounters. However, one species that is often overlooked when visiting this area is the European Otter. These elusive members of the weasel family (mustelids) are always a joy to see on our guided days out and often provide a ‘magic moment’ for those lucky enough to encounter them.

An Otter looking attentive
European Otter (Jane Hope)

The European Otter is just at home on the coast as it is on inland lochs and rivers. The former being the easier habitat to see them, however, like most wildlife there is no guarantee of seeing one at all. An Otter on the coast in the UK is the same species as the ones encountered inland – not a ‘Sea Otter’. The individuals inhabiting costal habitats thrive on an ecosystem that is determined by the tides and exploit the bountiful food trapped in exposed rock pools and shallows. This makes them slightly more predictable than their inland counterparts as their activity is very much dependant on tidal activity.

An Otter on top of a rock with some water in the background
An Otter on the coast (Kate Mennie)

On a recent Guided Day Out to the Moray Coast, we targeted Otters as a species of interest and made a special effort to try and see one. Timing our arrival for low tide, we arrived to scan the surroundings for any Otter activity – and we were not disappointed! After scanning a lot of Otter shaped rocks, we eventually spotted one individual tucked up fast asleep at the end of an exposed outcrop. Delighted with our initial success, we continued to watch the sleeping otter as it lay seemingly unaware to the rest of the world. The harmony was soon disrupted as a second individual popped up onto the rock and the two began to frolic around the rock and into the water. This was an amazing encounter and a real highlight of the day.

Away from the action on the coast, looking for Otters inland can be a much more challenging task. On lochs and rivers, it is more likely to see signs of an otter than seeing the animal itself. I have spent more time than I care to admit traipsing along rivers and burns searching for signs of Otter activity. I have found that identifying clues that an Otter has been in the area can be just as rewarding as actually seeing the animal. The most obvious one is finding footprints along the waters edge. These are distinguished by their 5 teardrop shaped toes and kidney shaped pad – most likely to be confused with the tracks of an American Mink however these are much smaller.

Whether on a meandering river or out on the coast, a sighting of an Otter is always a special encounter.

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