Otters. How many in this gem town were aware that, just a stick’s throw from their regular dog-walk along the banks of the Tom Rudd Beck, otters were building their homes, rearing families? Few, I suspect. Except those whose ducks or chickens have been snaffled and ponds raided, and those with a professional interest in wildlife and their habitats. And, as it turns out, we have a few of those in Cockermouth. So grab yourself a cuppa, crack open the custard creams and make yourself comfy… this is a long tale…
Otters have long captured our collective imagination. According to the Henry Williamson Society, ‘Tarka the Otter’ (written by Williamson) has never been out of print in some form or other in the eighty-nine years or so since its original publication. Appropriately enough for a blog about Strawberry How, when film director David Cobham was first approached, in 1971, about turning the book into a film, he was busy making another film – about ‘drastic farming methods’ – entitled ‘The Vanishing Hedgerows’. In our case, of course, they’re vanishing for another cause, no less rapacious.
The film finally screened in 1979, narrated by Peter Ustinov, and appears still to be available on DVD. The story, set in Devon, tells of the ‘birth, joyful water-life and inevitable death’ of a male otter called Tarka (the Water Wanderer) in the ‘country of the two rivers’. Spooky.
Enduringly popular as the story of Tarka is, ‘real life’ otters don’t always behave quite as politely as we’d hope. Top of the food chain in our rivers, they’ve been labelled ‘ruthless and bloodthirsty’ by some. But, let’s face it, an otter’s got to eat. And it’s not just about fish, ducks and chickens.
Earlier this year, owners of Markenfield Hall, a 14th century manor near Ripon in North Yorkshire, were delighted to discover that an otter had moved onto their land – until the animal turned its attention to the hall’s beloved black swans, Roland and Sylvia. Sadly, Roland was killed, leaving Sylvia a ‘widow’.
Lady Deidre and Ian Curteis initially thought a fox or a mink had been dining out on the ready supply of fresh fish in their moat, but a motion-activated night vision camera caught the otter at 3.00am ‘virtually putting his knife and fork down and wiping his napkin’.
But such is the charm of the species, rather than evicting the culprit, the couple named him Otto, erected displays around the grounds with otter facts and pictures and encouraged visitors to spot him on their Moat Walk. Sylvia, meanwhile, has been temporarily removed for her own safety.
Elsewhere online, there’s enormous fun to be had comparing the poor old otter with thespian and television sleuth Benedict Cumberbatch, whose every facial expression and mannerism echo those of an otter. Apparently. A phenomenon which Graham Norton was quick to exploit on his late night show last November.
Cuddly-wuddly or bloodthirsty killers – either way, protected
But, whatever you think about otters – bloodthirsty fish snafflers or charismatic celebrity lookalikes – the fact remains they are protected by law. It was in the 1950s and 1960s, when a combination of poor river quality and extensive poaching (for their pelts) saw their numbers decline rapidly across the UK. Otters were declared an endangered species and given protection under law.
Since then, a great deal of work has been done to improve our waterways and rivers. Under these much improved conditions, the Otter Trust released scores of hand-reared otters into the wild and the species is now thriving. And, it would seem – given the ongoing photographic and video evidence now being gathered – that it is most certainly thriving in the Tom Rudd Beck, quite close to the proposed ‘Strawberry Grange’.
Yet, when Story Homes commissioned their ecological assessment for the site (published in July 2013), it was said that no evidence of otters had been noted along the beck during surveys in 2010 and 2012, and that the area of the beck which sits within the site – or within 30 metres of the site boundary – was an unlikely breeding ground ‘due to the lack of secure underground holts and the unauthorised use of surrounding fields for walking dogs.’
The report concluded that otters may occasionally pass through the site along the line of the beck but little more. However, a further pre-construction survey was recommended, in case the otters became active within the proposed development site, in the time between the report being issued and the commencement of site activities. Mitigation measures were included with the site plans, in the form of an ‘otter pipe’, to be placed at a height which would be enough to survive all but ‘one in 100’ year water levels. But, as already proved in December, one in 100 years is no longer an appropriate measure of risk.
By the time building work was due to commence, local concern was growing. The Ecological Assessment had a two-year lifespan so was already nine months out of date and – certainly from the outside looking in – there seemed little interest in conducting a further survey. Seen through the prism of the notorious ‘bird’s nest mystery’ (where’s Benedict when you need him?), which saw a number of birds nests literally disappear, things didn’t bode well for the otters.
According to government guidance, the European otter is the only native UK otter species and it is fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is an offence to (amongst other things), disturb otters (on purpose or by not taking enough care), to damage or destroy a breeding or resting place (deliberately or by not taking enough care), or to obstruct access to their resting or sheltering places (deliberately or by not taking enough care).
Two men in particular read the original ecologist’s report with interest. Peter Skillen is a wildlife artist and photographer. Jack Abernethy is a magistrate with a keen interest in the conservation of our rivers and the wildlife who share our world. Both are local to Cockermouth and fully aware that otters have been in the area for many years.
On Sunday 10 April, I received an excited phone call from Peter to the effect he had found otter poo – ‘spraint’ as I now know to call it! – close to the proposed development site. Photos followed. This was perfect timing because, that weekend, I was busy preparing an updated report for the Secretary of State related to our request for revocation of planning permission.
It wasn’t long before Peter’s ‘what-the-otter-had-for-its-lunch’ shots were doing the rounds on social media and, in the weeks since, he has continued to gather photographic and video evidence, proving that otters do more than just pass through this place, but build their holts here too. Meanwhile, Jack has taken the lead on contacting the relevant agencies.
Red tape, rules and email ping-pong
With some urgency, Jack sent the initial evidence to the Natural England Wildlife Unit at Bristol, suggesting that the ecological assessment prepared for Story Homes be updated to ensure the otters were properly protected. His email was passed to Kate Berry, from the Natural England Cumbria team, and she agreed, stating that ‘works should cease and an ecologist be contacted for further advice if any holts or lying up areas become apparent’.
By 24 April, even more otter poo had been found, tracks had been spotted and Peter was ‘95% convinced he had found at least two otter holts’.
The Cumbria Police Wildlife Unit, Allerdale Borough Council and Story Homes were kept in the loop throughout. In fact, following this latest find, PC Helen Branthwaite (Wildlife, Rural & Environmental Crime Coordinator with Cumbria Constabulary) reported to Jack that Mark Warren, the senior site manager, had told her that ‘further advice on otters was being obtained’ and that ‘no work was due to commence on the site for the foreseeable future because of legal reasons’. We never discovered what this actually meant, but it proved an intriguing snippet!
Jack and Peter were keen to keep the exact location of the otters closely guarded, fearing a public announcement might endanger them – given that shortly after the ecologist placed pegs adjacent to a number of birds nests, those same nests vanished. There was no suggestion that Story Homes or their ecologist had destroyed the nests but, says Jack, ‘perhaps their destruction goes some way to explaining the reluctance to make the locations of sensitive sites too public!’
In early May, Ben McNutt, a highly-experienced tracker and wilderness skills instructor based in the Lake District, confirmed Peter’s view. Recognised as one of the UK’s leading bushcraft and survival experts, Ben trained with Ray Mears and has been working professionally in the field for sixteen years, so he knows a thing or two about the wild. In his view, there was also clear evidence of the presence of young otters.
Peter placed motion-sensitive night vision cameras near to the holt and by 1 May he had the first video evidence of an otter in Tom Rudd Beck, very close to the Story Homes site. The presence of breeding otters and underground holts was now 100% confirmed!
Once again, Jack made sure that Natural England was kept aware of developments and passed on all the detailed evidence collected by Peter – all of which contradicted the statements made in the Story Homes Ecological Report about the presence of otters in Tom Rudd Beck.
The developer confirmed, a couple of days later, that the ecologists would be revisiting the site later that week and would share the findings of their updated survey. Story Homes also confirmed that the ecologists would form part of an ongoing ‘environmental management team’ for the project.
Then, on 12 May, still reeling with disappointment that the eight nests he’d previously identified in a section of hedgerow had disappeared without trace, Peter took the on-site ecologist down to the beck. This gentleman verbally confirmed that, in his view, the otters did indeed use at least part of the site owned by Story Homes as their hunting ground.
So… good news at last…
…er no… not really. Because, a couple of days earlier, Story Homes had circulated an updated report (dated 10 March 2016), by ecologist Matthew Thomas of Envirotech Consultants (I believe this was a difference gentleman to the one who later confirmed Peter’s findings).
The report stated that ‘a survey of Tom Rudd within the boundaries of the site did not find any signs of habitat use by otters… we consider it unlikely that otters would utilise this site habitually due to a lack of suitable forage and regular disturbance by dog walkers. It is likely that this species only passes through the site infrequently’.
Not so different to the original report, then, and in direct conflict with Peter’s evidence and the views of the ecologist Peter met on site on 12 May.
On 13 May, I received a copy of a response to Sue Hayman MP (who had written to Story Homes on our behalf) from Fred Story himself. Our concern was that the proposed start date of 9 May (as initially reported on the road closure signs) was too early to accommodate a revised ecological assessment. Mr Story’s response was dated 3 May.
He confirmed that ‘the conversation between PC Helen Branthwaite and Mark Warren [regarding a delayed start for the foreseeable future] was correct at that time’. With regard to the otters, he went on…
‘The evidence of otters has been reviewed by our ecologist and shared with the planning authority and Natural England. All stakeholders are satisfied that appropriate environmental measures are in place for site start and agreed ecological assessment [and] monitoring will continue in compliance with our planning approval and other legislation during the construction period.
‘We will maintain our regular contact with the planning authority, the local police and Natural England to manage environmental and other matters, in accordance with our consents, so that none of the activity we propose to undertake is in breach of any planning regulations or wildlife protection legislation’.
Onwards then, to 17 May, when Jack chased Kate Berry of Natural England to enquire if there had been any response from either Story Homes or Allerdale’s Steve Robinson regarding a ‘summary statement of the works they plan to undertake closest to the beck, the timescales for this and the proposed mitigation measures which could be implemented to ensure that the otters are not disturbed’. In his email, he reiterated all the findings thus far, reminding Kate that there was now a clear audit trail of all this evidence via a dedicated Facebook page – The Otters of Tom Rudd Beck – which was rapidly gaining traction not just in the community but further afield.
His and Peter’s motives, it must be clearly stated, were not to prevent the development going ahead. They merely sought to ensure that, in developing this site, Story Homes is acting, and is seen to be acting, within the laws to protect wildlife. He hoped that ‘they will be very sensitive to local feeling and be prepared to go beyond the absolute legal minimum to protect this wildlife’.
Breakthrough? Or not?
Finally, on 20 May, came better news, as an exchange of emails suggested that all concerned were now willing to recognise the existence of otter holts and breeding otters.
A new briefing note, dated 17 May 2016, produced by Andrew Gardner, director at Envirotech, confirmed the presence of otters yet still considered that the level of use of the beck is sufficiently low and remote from the initial phase of work that disturbance would not occur.
Adam McNally, for Story Homes, noted it as ‘unfortunate’ that Story Homes and the appointed ecologists had been unable to confirm the presence of otter holts close to the site until the most recent survey. Had the location been shared earlier, he said, this ‘may have saved miscommunication’, which seems a little disingenuous but we’ll move on.
Story Homes has now committed to introducing an artificial otter habitat within the site on completion of the ‘Blue Corridor’ works. During construction, mitigation methods will include ‘water pollution prevention measures, light mitigation and bespoke construction method statements for working close to the Tom Rudd Beck watercourse’. And they plan to maintain an ongoing ecological watching brief to ensure that ‘disturbance to protected species does not occur’.
Welcome words. At last. Yet, not surprisingly, a degree of scepticism lingers in the community.
As a company, Story Homes prides itself on ‘giving something back to the communities’ which their work impacts upon. Their ‘Sustainable Story’ commitment talks about ensuring the company has ‘a positive impact at all times’. They may well win industry awards and achieve top spots on Sunday Times lists, yet – when it comes to working with the community in this particular corner of the world – their public image is looking decidedly tarnished. And trust, as we all know, takes a long, long time to win back, once lost.
Concern lingers that the mitigation measures proposed remain rooted in the erroneous belief that otters only pass through the site very infrequently – despite all the evidence to the contrary. As Jack points out, ‘otters are clearly residing within about 25 metres of the site boundary and regularly frequent the stream through that site’. Should there not, therefore, be some additional mitigation measures put in place to ensure the otters are not disturbed or harmed during the construction phase?
One measure might be to fence off the Blue Corridor with a simple post and wire fence before any construction work commences near the beck. This would give some physical protection to the otters and also allow the riverside vegetation to regenerate naturally and provide better wildlife habitat. ‘It would seem’, says Jack, ‘that such a mitigation would be an appropriate and proportionate response to the new information and in line with the precautionary approach suggested by Kate Berry’. We await a response.
And that, you’ll be pleased to hear (as I feel sure the custard creams must now be a distant memory), is where we are up to with the otters. I don’t think, however, that we’ve yet heard the last.
- Otter poo is called spraint, an otter home is a holt and the collective name for a group of otters is a romp.
- The European otter (Lutra lutra) is an important part of our ecological system and they are at the top of the food chain in our rivers.
- They communicate by whistles, chattering and spitting. Not unlike some human beings then…
- Otters are particularly susceptible to any litter and rubbish left lying around, including building waste and chemicals which might find its way alongside or into the water.
- They prefer not to enter a dark tunnel or unknown exit routes so will generally opt for crossing over rather than under a road, say. In many areas, where roads are being built in known otter habitats, ‘otter underpasses’ are being built but these are inevitably an expensive commodity to install. Might this explain the reluctance to accept that these animals are present here?
References: The Press (yorkpress.co.uk), The Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk), The Henry Williamson Society (henrywilliamson.co.uk), ‘Otters: surveys and mitigation for development projects’ (gov.uk/guidance/otters-protection-surveys-and-licences), The UK Wild Otter Trust, Story Homes (storyhomes.co.uk).