The resurgence of otters, once threatened with extinction, is causing a headache for anglers amid claims the predators are emptying rivers and lakes of fish.
The situation has become so serious that leading figures from the sport are demanding a cull of the animals. The call will prove highly controversial because otters have become an emblem of wildlife preservation, following a series of reintroduction schemes over the last 20 years.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it an offence to kill an otter, punishable by a £5,000 fine or six months in prison. They can only be hunted with a special licence, none of which have ever been issued.
Otters have been a popular feature on the current series of the BBC’s wildlife show Springwatch, which ends this week. The programme has featured otters on the river Wensum, in Norfolk – one of the rivers where anglers say otters are having a destructive impact.
Many anglers will only discuss culling in private, fearing that public opinion will turn against them if they openly call for it. One of those now urging action is Ian Chillcott, one of the country’s leading coarse anglers and a fishing writer. He said: “Fisheries are being absolutely destroyed by these cuddly, little murdering blighters. Livelihoods are being ruined but everyone is afraid to use the word ‘culling’.
“No one wants widespread mass slaughter, but there is a need for very targeted culling. It has to be done in a controlled way and not indiscriminate. No one wants to get rid of them, just for them to be better managed.”
Des Taylor, another angling writer, added: “Nobody wants to even talk about a cull but if they’re causing serious financial damage to a business – which is what fisheries are – then maybe we should be thinking about a government licence which might allow proven troublesome otters to be killed. It already happens with cormorants which take huge amounts of fish.
“People think of otters as a nice cuddly, whispery thing and unfortunately they don’t see the other side.”
Until the 1970s, otters were hunted with otter hounds. If a cull were ordered now the most likely method of killing would be shooting at night, using night vision goggles.
Anglers say that some landowners and fishermen have already taken the law into their own hands, carrying out illegal culls of otters.
The sense of increasing frustration among anglers has prompted a meeting, taking place in Hemel Hempstead tomorrow, involving the Angling Trust, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, to find ways of tackling the issue.
Major angling organisations like the Angling Trust and groups from which it was formed have so far resisted public calls for a cull, although some senior officials have spoken of the need for such a move.
One said: “The official line is ‘no cull’. But I think controls will come in at some point down the line.”
The Angling Times has been campaigning on the issue, calling for more research into otter predation – with all the options left on the table.
Richard Lee, its editor, said: “The slaughter of these animals has been driven underground. It is already going on. If you watch £20,000 worth of stock disappear in just a few days – what are the owners going to do?
“We are desperate for research so the issue is fully understood. We don’t want random culling. But we want to stop fisheries’ owners taking the law into their own hands. We need some proper research with all the options on the table.”
Otters came close to disappearing from the UK in the 1970s, following the effects of hunting, habitat loss and pollution in waterways, especially from the use of pesticides.
But pollution controls, habitat restoration and reintroduction programmes have turned the tide. In 2003, the last time a large-scale survey was carried out, the European river otter (lutra lutra) was present in more than five times as many areas as it was in 1979. The species is now even found in urban rivers.
However, anglers argue that the reintroduction schemes have been badly co-ordinated, with otters often released in unsuitable habitats. Moreover, the number of eels – once the otter’s staple diet – has fallen dramatically over the intervening period, forcing the animals to feast on the same fish that are highly prized by anglers, like carp, barbel, pike, trout and salmon.
In some areas, anglers argue, entire fish populations have disappeared. What is particularly galling for them is that often the otters will not eat the fish, but simply take a large bite, killing them.
In 2007, an otter killed the 20lb British record barbel, called The Traveller, on the River Great Ouse, near Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. Other prize specimens, some costing several thousand pounds per fish, have also been killed.
Some fishing clubs have already closed because their stocks have been plundered by otters, while others are having to slash their fees because they are now able to offer less fish to catch.
At the same time, clubs are having to spend thousands of pounds to restock. Some are installing specialist anti-otter fences, which prevent otters burrowing under or climbing over, but these are impractical at many sites.
Nick Pottle, secretary of the Lakeside angling club, near Lowestoft, said: “Our lake is now all but empty of fish, we have two families of otters that have cleared the fish out. The Environment Agency say we must put up a fence to stop the otters at our expense as we would not qualify for a grant. That is the end of our club.”
At tomorrow’s meeting, the Angling Trust will call for government support for specialist fences, in an effort to quieten calls for a cull.
Mark Lloyd, the chief executive, said: “What we need is public funding for fencing because fisheries are important economic units that provide people with their livelihoods. What has to be stressed is that anglers are not anti-otter. If I see one when I’m fishing on a river it makes my day.”
Dr Tony Mitchell-Jones, a mammal specialist from Natural England, said that otters had been released into the wild at the rate of more than seven a year between 1983 and 1999, but that no captive-bred otters had been released since then.
“Things are looking much better for the otter but it is not yet back everywhere it should be. Control of otter populations is likely to be discussed at the meeting tomorrow. I’m not going to prejudge the situation but there is a presumption against the licensing of killing of protected species unless there are extremely good reasons for doing so. For culling, you would have to show that the control would contribute to the solution of a problem.”