Otters in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 4th of January 2023
Otters in Scotland

The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), a beloved and iconic species in Scotland, is also known by its Gaelic names "Dobhran" and "Beaste Dubh", which translates to "black beast." These semi-aquatic mammals belong to the same family as badgers, weasels, stoats, pine martens, and mink. Otters are known for their playful behaviour and are found in freshwater and coastal environments across the country.

Sea otters / coastal otters

In addition to their Gaelic names, otters are also referred to as "sea otters" in some parts of Scotland due to their preference for coastal habitats, but sea otters and "normal" otters are exactly the same species. The west coast, in particular, is a haven for otters in the warmer waters of the gulf stream.

These intelligent mammals were once lost from much of England and Wales due to pesticide pollution but have thrived in Scotland's cleanest bodies of water in the north and west. It is estimated that there are around 8000 otters in Scotland today, with a high proportion being coastal dwellers.

Otters on the Scottish coast. Otters feed on crustaceans.
A sea otter, this one looks angry!

What do wild otters eat?

In Scotland, otters can be found in freshwater habitats and coastal environments, where they feed on a variety of prey, including eels, crabs, fish, frogs, toads, mammals (including rabbits), and birds (moorhens/ducks).

Coastal otters have smaller home ranges (4-5 km of coastline) due to the abundance of fish and crustacean prey in coastal waters. On the other hand, freshwater otters are primarily nocturnal and have much larger home ranges of around 32 km. However, coastal otters require fresh water to wash the salt from their fur, or their coats lose their insulative properties.

Threats to otters

Otters in Scotland also face several threats, including road accidents, commercial eel fishing, and crustacean fishing practices known as "creeling." NatureScot works closely with developers and road engineers to implement measures to prevent otter casualties on new roads and retrofit existing problem areas. If you see a dead otter on the road, be aware that the area is probably an otter habitat, so take care while driving.

The only natural predator for otters in Scotland is foxes.

Despite these challenges, the otter population in Scotland is steadily recovering and flourishing. These fascinating animals belong to the same family as badgers, pine martens, stoats, weasels, and American mink. It is essential to continue efforts to protect and preserve Scotland's otter population for future generations to enjoy.

Otters spend much of their time hunting for prey.
A pair of otters swimming near Fort William.

Otter stats/physiology

Head/body length: 59 to 110cm (males are bigger than females)
Tail length: 35 to 45cm
Weight: 7 to 11kg
Lifespan: Up to 10 years

Otters are semi-aquatic mammals that are known for their sleek and slender bodies. They have long, narrow heads with small, pointed ears and a tapered muzzle. Their eyes are large and expressive, and their whiskers are long and sensitive, designed to detect underwater prey in the water.

Webbed feet help them easily swim inland rivers and at sea. A double layer of fur, a thick undercoat and a waterproof outer layer keep them warm in the water and on land. Otters come in various colours, including shades of brown, grey, and black.

Otter size can vary greatly. They can range in length from 59 to 110cm, with males typically larger than females on average. Their tails are also long, measuring 35 to 45cm in length, and they weigh between 7 and 11kg. Overall, otters are graceful and agile creatures that are well-adapted to both land and water.

Otter reproduction

Otters mate throughout the year and typically have litters of 2 to 3 cubs, born between May and August. They usually give birth in hidden dens, such as in banks, between rocks, or among tree roots. These newborn pups are tiny, at just 12cm in length, but they grow rapidly and can swim at three months old. After about 10 to 12 months, the young otters leave the protection of their mothers and are ready to breed at around two years old.

European Otter
Otters are intelligent and inquisitive animals.

Interesting otter facts

  • Otters have the thickest fur of any animal, with 600,000 to 1,000,000 hair follicles per square inch!

  • Otters do not have a blubber layer like other marine animals, such as whales and seals.

  • Sea otters consume 25% of their body weight in food each day.

  • Otters can dive as deep as 250 feet below the water's surface.

  • Otters can hold their breath for 8 minutes.

  • Some otters sleep holding hands.

Scottish law and otters

Otters in Scotland have been given the highest level of legal protection available within The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994. This classifies otters as a "European Protected Species".

It is highly illegal to:

  • Kill, injure or capture an otter.

  • Disturb or harass an otter.

  • Destroy or block access to an otter's breeding site or holt/nest.

The Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 increased the maximum penalty for animal cruelty to 5 years imprisonment and unlimited fines.

Otter crossing sign in Shetland.
 

Ring of Bright Water film/motion picture

"Ring of Bright Water" (1969) is a classic film about an otter name Mij set in Scotland. I saw this film in primary school, and it stuck with me due to its sad ending.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name, the film tells the story of a man named Graham Merill who moves to the Scottish Highlands to live a simple life in a remote cottage by the sea.

As he settles into his new surroundings, Graham becomes captivated by a group of otters that live nearby. He becomes especially fond of a small, playful otter named Mij, and the two quickly become inseparable. Together, they explore the rugged coastline and experience the beauty of the natural world.

As the years pass, Graham and Mij's bond deepens, and they become more connected to the land and its inhabitants. However, their idyllic existence is threatened when a group of developers arrive with plans to build a resort in the area. Graham must fight to protect the home he has made with Mij and the other otters.

It's a great wee film and showcases many fine Scottish landscapes and otters in Scotland. Check out the trailer below.

Otters in Scotland FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers on otters in Scotland.

Are otters related to pine martens?

Yes - Pine martens are a member of the mustelid family, which includes animals such as badgers, otters, weasels, and stoats. Pine martens can be found in many habitats in Scotland, including forests, woodlands, and mountain ranges. These intelligent and adaptable creatures are a vital part of many ecosystems and play essential roles in controlling pest populations and dispersing seeds.

Where can I see otters in Scotland?

Otters can be found in various habitats throughout Scotland, including freshwater lochs, rivers, and coastal areas. If you want to see otters in their natural habitat, some of the best places to visit include the Hebrides, the Cairngorms National Park, and the west coast of Scotland. On the coast, a calm sea will give the best chances of spotting otters.

Are there any dedicated hides to see otters in Scotland?

Here are a few hides you can use to view wild otters in Scotland.

At many of the available hides around Scotland, you may also see:

Are otters endangered in Scotland?

Marked as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, otters are classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List (2004).

The otter population in Scotland has recovered well in recent years and is considered to be thriving. However, they do face several threats, including busy roads, commercial eel fishing, and creeling.

Are otters nocturnal?

Otters in Scotland can be either nocturnal or diurnal, depending on their habitat. Coastal otters are generally active during the day, while freshwater otters are more active at night.

How powerful is an otter bite?

Because otters have powerful jaws and teeth designed for crunching tough sea shells, their bite can generate a force of 80 pounds, similar to the bite of a German shepherd dog! But don't worry - it's very unlikely that you will be attacked by an otter in Scotland.

Otters live in mostly near the sea in Scotland. Coastal dwelling individuals.
A night time snack!

Conclusion

Otters are an essential part of the Scottish ecosystem, and by protecting their habitats and raising awareness about the importance of Otters, we can help ensure that these charming creatures remain a beloved part of Scotland's natural landscape for decades to come.

Images by Caroline Legg, Jennicatpink, Murray Barnes.

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