Talks for Winter 2011_12: 

The lost rivers of London; Stanmore Common survey ; Reptiles ; The new Flora of Hertfordshire ; Otters

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September 2011

The lost rivers of London

 

Mike Howgate

 

London has a number of rivers flowing into the Thames both north and south of the river, though this presentation dealt only with those north of the Thames and focussed on the Wlbrook, the Fleet and the Tyburn.  While the headwaters are often still above ground, in the suburbs, the City and Westminster, they are culverted and hidden.  As early as 1598, John Stow described the Walbrook as already covered and hidden.  A good book on the subject is N.J. Barton – Lost rivers of London.

      

Map showing the lost rivers of London

 

Many of the rivers can be traced.  The London Topographic Society has published the Agas map and the Copperplate map showing Elizabethan rivers.  Street names such as Cow Cross, Town Mill, Fleet Street, Knightsbridge tell of hidden rivers, as do early Ordnance Survey maps before the major development of London and its suburbs.  One of the best sources is the North London Geological Survey map, where old river courses are picked out in alluvium.

 

Archaeology can also provide clues.  For example, excavations keep finding odd little unexpected culverts.  There was a boom in rescue archaeology under Professor Miles just after the Second World War during the reconstruction period.  In a transect across the River Walbrook, he found the Temple of Mithra.

 

There is also City mythology, such as the reputed stream under the Bank of England used by bank robbers to enter via the Walbrook culvert.  However, this is a myth.

 

Subsidence also occurs due to lack of maintenance of the culverts.  The Walbrook in the City of London runs alongside Mansion House and St Stephens Walbrook has huge cracks in the wall.  These were underpinned by Sir Peter Palumbo when building No. 1 Poultry.  The church was slipping into the Walbrook valley because it was founded partly on London clay and with the tower on alluvium. 

 

Sewers in London came into the public eye with the book The great stink describing the work of Joseph Bazalgette, whose interception sewers intercepted all the rivers and use part of their flow to flush the system.

 

River Walbrook

 

The Walbrook probably starts on the fringes of Hackney, from springs at the base of the Hackney Gravels.  The Roman riverfront was 60m back from the current riverfront and the Wlbrook approaches from Moorgate Circus and Spitalfields.  In 1570, Moorfield, north of Moorgate, was open ground used for drying laundry etc.  The Walbrook drains into the City Ditch (alongside the City wall) at All Hallows on the Wall.  The Wlbrook had a water mill (probably an undershot mill with a 2-3 feet drop).  In the 18th century a culvert was excavated with iron grilles at either end.  The City Ditch runs from Moorgate through Bishopsgate and Aldgate to the Tower of London.

 

At St Margaret’s Lothbury, one corner of the church is collapsing into a Walbrook culvert and St Mildred Poultry is no longer there but a substantial stream was described as going through it in 1860. At Walbrook, the street, excavations in 1956 discovered the Temple of Mithras, which was previously unknown, though Mithraian artefacts had been found in Victorian excavations for building foundations.  The bust of Mithra was found on the day before the builders were due to move in and a 12-month stay of execution was granted for proper excavation.  The Temple was moved to its present location about 200 feet away and it is now 10 feet above the surface when it was previously 20 feet below it.  The Walbrook runs along Canon Street to the low-level northern interceptor sewer.

 

River Holborn (or Fleet)

 

This river has at least 4 names, the Holborn, the Fleet, the Turnmill Brook and the River of Wells.  While the name Fleet has tended to stick, it should properly only refer to the tidal inlet (as far upstream as Holborn Viaduct).  It is not on Fleet Street, which is the road leading to the River Fleet, just as Holborn is the road leading to the River Holborn. 

 

Its source is on Hampstead Heath and Highgate, which is the source of a number of rrivers, such as the Westbourne Tyburn and Fleet draining south, tributaries of the River Brent draining north and Hackney Brook and Mosul Brook draining east.  Hampstead Heath is capped by Bagshot Sands and water dissolves iron to produce Chalybeate Wells.  Springs occur at the junction with the Claygate Beds and drain into Hampstead and Highgate Ponds.  The latter was built as part of the late medieval water supply of the City of London.  The official source is the Vale of Health, one of the few places in London where bubonic plague did not occur but now a damp frost hollow.  The other arm of the Fleet arises near Kenwood House and the two arms join just north of Camden Town Station.

 

In 1800 it flowed down to St Pancras Station and there are paintings of bathers in the Fleet in 1815.  It passed by Smithfield Market, where the traders were allowed to draw off water to wash their meat but not to discharge into it (though they often did).  It became hemmed in by houses and rapidly became an open sewer.  It flowed past the Fleet Prison, Fleet Bridge and Bridewell in 1670 and there was a major attempt to revitalise the river (by Sir Christopher Wren) after the Great Fire of London.  The aim was to have the lower part of the Fleet as a Venetian style canal.  The area north of Fleet Bridge was covered over and became a market and there are remnants in street names such as Turnagain Street, Newcastle Street (the coal trade) and Stone Cuttes’ Street (the Portland Stone trade).  The Romans also used the Fleet for unloading stone  and Kentish Rag has been found in a ship at the mouth of the Fleet (one of 1500 loads recorded as being used for building the Roman wall of Londinium.

 

The river Fleet does not enter the Thames any longer.  In the mid-19th century, Bazalgette designed a series of interceptor sewers with a 10 feet per mile gradient (self-flushing).  The Northern low-level sewer goes to a pumping station in Stratford where it is pumped to the Northern hihgh-level sewer, which has a natural fall to the Beckton treatment works.  The sewers take water from the Highgate arm and the middle and lower levels of the Fleet to assist flow.  However, the former outlet of the Fleet is still visible near Blackfriars Bridge.

 

River Tyburn

 

From the Belsize Park area, the River Tyburn crosses the Regent’s Canal in a culvert then into Mayfair where it was called the St Mary bourne or stream to avoid the unsavoury connotations of the name Tyburn, hence with several changes in spelling to Marylebone.

 

Water from the Tyburn has been taken from the 13th century with conduits into the City of London via 3 miles of piping to Cheapside.  The Tyburn valley is distinct in Green Park but the river was probably dry or just a trickle by the 1500s.  It reached the Thames at Westminster with distributaries either side of Thorney Island.  South of Buckingham Palace the land was very flat and TAchbrook Street might be a 17th century artificial cutting for floodwaters through Pimlico to Vauxhall Bridge.

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October 2011

Stanmore Common Survey and Grant Application

Steve Bolsover, John Dobson & David Bailey

 

This joint meeting with the Harrow Nature Conservation Forum heard presentations on Stanmore Common, its survey, maintenance and future management.

 

Steve Bolsover gave an introduction to Stanmore Common, the northernmost of Harrow’s open spaces.  Geologically, it is on top of the Harrow Weald ridge, mostly on Pleistocene gravels overlying the Claygate Beds and it has well drained acid soils.  It was open common in the 19th century but is now much covered with pretty mature beech woodland, though fallen trees and some growing silver birches show it is in the succession from open land to woodland.  There are a few big old trees, for example at Oak Mead, and an area, The Wetwood, which has temporary pools in winter.  A number of streams run north-east to Pynding Mersc, where the horse-ride doubles as a dam to produce temporary ponds that dry out in summer.   A number of open spaces remain, such as Holly Brook Rise, which is dominated by bracken, though bushes of heather and tormentils remain.  It is one of the few locations in Greater London for heath spotted orchid.   At New Heath, a fire killed the silver birches and under the London Heathland project, restoration was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  The topsoil was scraped off and heather from Hounslow Heath was scattered on site in 2008 and is now flourishing.

 

 

John Dobson spoke about botanical survey and mapping of the Common in 2010 and specifically on the indicators of ancient woodland.   Ramsons occur close to Warren Lane in a couple of places and sanicle occurs in many more locations than was previously realised, more often in rather damp areas.  Remote sedge is part of a suite of species and just outside the Common boundary to the north-east, Copperbanks Wood has a sward of remote sedge.  Wood meadow grass is scattered around the Common and wood sorrel occurs in 3 major areas.  The Common has had a great deal of gravel digging in the past but the indicator species are in areas that have not been dug.  Ancient Common hawthorn occurs, including one with a girth of 290cm, compared to the standard for ancient hawthorns of 120cm.  There are no mature wild service trees but there is one young tree.  There is one small colony of wood millet to the south of the Common and other small occurrences.  2 mature sessile oak trees occur on the northern fence line and there are younger trees within the reserve.  There are 3 colonies of lily-of-the-valley and three-nerved sandwort is widespread.  Other indicator species that occur include broad-leaved helleborine, creeping soft grass, aspen and wood anemone.  These occurrences strongly indicate that the Common was originally an area of ancient woodland which was cleared for the timber and underwent widespread gravel digging to become open land by the 19th century.

 

A number of management issues arise and examples were given from Compartment 13 The Wetwood.  Here there is seasonal inundation of the wet woodland habitat, which has particular value for its uniqueness, most of the areas where ponding occurs being old gravel diggings.  The summer water table is only inches below the surface and there is a drain but, while this probably drains in from the road, it may drain out and this would need to be examined as part of a water-level management plan (the statutory plan for SSSIs).  Characteristic species include velvet bent and creeping jenny and there are roadside flora, such as hawkweeds, decaying timber habitats and mature trees adjacent to Harrow Rugby Club.  Brash from clearance at the Rugby Club is a potential problem and fly-tipping from the road is common.  Street lighting could also have an adverse impact if it were to be installed.  Rabbits occur alongside Warren Lane.

 

Use of global positioning satellites (GPS) enabled the establishment of a database which is geographically referenced (geographical information system) and with imported altitude data enables detailed contour mapping which shows Pynding Mersc as the lowest point at 118m above ordnance datum with the highest point being in the south of the reserve near Warren Lane at 150m.  The rise from Pynding Mersc to the Warren Lane car park is 25m.  Watershed analysis shows very close correlation between the expected drainage pattern and that seen on the ground, except that the Wetwood should have a stream flowing through it according to the analysis.

 

David Bailey spoke briefly on the maintenance work carried out on the reserve, largely by volunteers of all ages, including local community groups and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.  Scrub clearance is a major task and bracken has to be cut regularly and the brash cleared.  On New Heath, they are trying to get saplings up by the roots to keep the heath open rather than having to cut them back every year or so.  Brambles are generally left other than ensuring that paths remain open.

 

Steve Bolsover then spoke about the Heritage Lottery Fund application for restoration work at Bluebell Heath.  This area comprises a series of small rides or glades divided by secondary woodland (generally less than 20 years old, which is not rich in ancient woodland indicators, with a small wet-flush area in the extreme west.  The intention is to clear this secondary woodland and the more mature woodland between Bluebell Heath and New Heath to create a continuous stretch of open heathland which could then be maintained by council mowing.  Stanmore Common lost its SSSI status because the areas of acid grassland were too small to maintain the insect population and this restoration would give space for that population to spread over the wider area.  A Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £40,000 is being sought to clear the woodland and scrape soil and then scatter material from nearby to enable regeneration of the open heathland.  A pre-application has been submitted and the support of Harrow Natural History Society was sought for the full application and to help create a management plan for Stanmore Common to replace the last management plan of 1999.  All present agreed that the Society should support this application.

 

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January 2012

Reptiles and amphibians (and other wildlife) of South Carolina and north Georgia, USA

 

Nick Bessant

 

This profusely illustrated talk covered the reptiles and amphibians of two areas in the southern United States of America, together with birds, mammals, invertebrates and flowers seen on springtime family holidays.

 

South Carolina

 

South Carolina is a warm weather area on the east coast of the USA.  It is largely flat and low-lying and very marshy with lots of rivers and lakes.  It has a mix of northern and southern species and a large number of different species.  It is relatively warm in spring and has holiday resorts on the coast for those in the family who are not dedicated to reptiles.

 

Compared to the UK’s 3 snakes, 3, lizards, 3 frogs, 2 toads and 3 newts, South Carolina has 39 snakes, 12 lizards, 16 tortoises and terrapins (+ 5 marine turtles), 1 alligator, 31 frogs and toads and 35 salamanders and newts.

 

The holiday was based at Hilton Head Island, a sand-spit island at the southern end of the South Carolina coast linked to the mainland by a causeway.  The island is very marshy with lots of lakes, including one just outside the time-share apartment.  The first alligator seen was on this lake, which also had abundant yellow-bellied sliders (terrapins).  A 10-12 feet long alligator was on the golf course nearby.  It is worth noting that it is an offence to feed or harass alligators.  Other species seen around here included fishing or raft spiders, dragonflies (Dolomedes sp.), great blue heron, snake-neck or anhinga, osprey, tri-coloured heron, black-crowned night heron, tufted titmouse and a flock of cormorants.  A green anole lizard was seen in the wall beneath the apartment.

 

A male southern toad was seen in the local shopping mall and a green anole displaying with its dewlap on the roof of a shop.  The local beach had sand dunes behind and a disorientated baby terrapin was seen making its way towards the sea.  On the golf course, they were shown an alligator den under the bank of the lake for winter hibernation.  Birds seen included brown pelicans, northern cardinal, eastern blue bird, little blue heron, pied billed grebe, red-bellied woodpecker, brown thrasher, northern mocking bird, great egret, white-throated sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler, brown-headed cowbirds, blue jay and grackle.  A south-eastern 5-lined skink was seen hiding in the leaf litter, presumably to escape cats, which predate them, though the cat almost comes off worst as they are toxic to them.  Spanish moss was abundant on trees.

 

On the way to the Tilman Sands Heritage Preserve, a black vulture was seen circling over Walmart and there was a boat-tailed grackle in the car park.  The reserve includes swamp cypress with its breathing roots.  A Carolina wren nest was found in an old tyre and there were zebra-tailed swallowtail butterflies and locusts. Dwarf salamanders, which have no lungs and just use the mouth and skin for respiration were found, as well as eastern fence lizard and ground skink.

 

The Gopher Tortoise Reserve is a dry area with very sandy soil.  The gopher tortoise digs long tunnels up to 40 feet down, which are used by many other animals as refuges.  In the harbour were laughing gulls, brown pelicans and a double-crested cormorant.  A dolphin-watching trip out to sea was successful.

 

At the Sea Pines Nature Reserve, a green tree frog and a southern leopard frog were seen as well as a ribbon snake eating a small frog.  Other species included red-bellied woodpecker, white ibis, grey catbird and grey squirrel (in its natural habitat).  The Sugar Cane Reserve had numerous mosquito fish, a common snapping turtle, a banded water snake, squirrel tree frog and a juvenile cottonmouth (water moccasin).  ~There were ant lion pits in the car park.

 

Northern Georgia

 

This holiday was at Big Canoe, Georgia, a gated community for residents and visitors on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in hilly mountainous terrain, a very different habitat from that on Hilton Head Island.  As a result the species were different, with 12 frogs, 22 snakes, 8 lizards, 21 salamanders and 5 toads recorded on the species list.  

 

Birds seen included pileated woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, Carolina wren (inside the apartment), chipping sparrow, tufted titmouse, American goldfinch, killdeer (a type of plover), eastern bluebird, vulture, wild turkey and Canada geese (in their natural environment).  Mammals included Virginia opossum, common raccoon and white-tailed deer and there were cockchafer beetles, a skipper butterfly, tent caterpillars and monarch butterfly as well as sapsucker damage to trees.  Fresh road-kill seen comprised a garter snake which had just regurgitated its lunch of red salamander.  A 5-lined skink or south-eastern 5-lined skink was seen as well as a 3-lined salamander and a black-bellied salamander.  In some of the lakes, trout have been introduced for anglers after killing off the native fish and this has tended to reduce the population of salamanders.

 

At the Amicolola Falls Park there was a reptile display in the information centre, which included eastern box turtle, copperhead (a pit viper), timber rattlesnake, eastern garter snake, corn snake and northern water snake.  In the park they saw tiger beetles, eastern tiger swallowtail and black swallowtail butterflies, eastern fence lizard, 5-lined skink, bullfrog and bullfrog tadpoles and a groundhog or woodchuck.  Birds included Blackburnian warbler, cedar waxwings, tree swallow, eastern bluebird, killdeer, broad-winged hawk and mourning dove.  Climbing up alongside the waterfall it was surprising to see a northern water snake on the rocks well away from the water, which turned out to be hunting Ocoee salamanders on the edge of the waterfall.  There was also a southern ring-necked snake.

 

The Dahlonega gold mine is now owned by the state as a tourist attraction and it was still early enough in the year for there to be bats hibernating inside.

 

At Toad’s Pond there was a stump which had been taken down by  beavers and green frog tadpoles, northern cricket frog, spring peeper (a tree frog) northern banded water snake and black racer snake.  Birds included northern flicker (a woodpecker), downy woodpecker, Carolina wood duck, greylag and Canada geese and turkey vultures.

 

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February 2012

The new Flora of Hertfordshire

 

Trevor James

 

This presentation described the new Flora of Hertfordshire published in December 2009 by the Hertfordshire Natural History Society and how it relates to what we’ve known for a long time.  The previous flora by John Dony was published by the British Museum (Natural History) in 1967.

 

What does it contain?

 

The Flora contains accounts of all 1,969 species 155 sub-species and 166 hybrids recorded in Hertfordshire, including habitat, occurrence and a detailed record of less common species.  There are 882 current distribution maps for the more frequent species from the survey carried out from 1987 to 2005.  There are also statistics on occurrences and changes in status of species since the last full survey for the Dony flora.

 

The Introduction describes the flora survey and how it was carried out.  The policy has been to record every locality that has ever been in Hertfordshire since 1860, even though it may be in a different county now.  It includes the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) baseline surveys across the country using selected squares as samples. 

 

There is a brief history of botanical recording in Hertfordshire with background information on Hertfordshire geology, hydrology, soils and climate with soil and geology maps and a summary of Hertfordshire landscape history relevant to its flora.  The habitats (communities) of Hertfordshire’s wild plants are described.  There is a brief analysis of changes in flora over the last 40 or more years.  There is a study of the effects of alien plants in Hertfordshire.

 

A photo gallery of botanical localities shows them as they were when the flora was surveyed and photos of rare or uncommon plants were taken when they were recorded and contributed by a number of different botanists.  Line drawings by local naturalist Andrew Harris are included.  There is a Hertfordshire “Red list” of threatened species and a gazetteer of plant localities accessible to the public.

 

The Foreword is written by Richard Mabey, who contributed to the recording around Tring.  Many people (over 250) contributed in many different ways.

 

Highlights

 

The first ever plant record in Hertfordshire was of Spindle between Ware and Barkway by Gerard in 1538.  History of the landscape is shown by early records such as Bog orchid between Hatfield and St Albans in 1640, which is characteristic of boggy, marshy meadow and acidic bog where the British Aerospace airfield is now. 

 

Other information comes from maps such as the Common at Northaw in 1766, clearly shown as heathland (there were over 10,000 acres of heathland from Cheshunt to Stanmore) and the Therfield – Kelshall area on chalk shown in 1766 as largely sheep-walk and there was open downland for miles.  The Amwell area on Bryant’s map of Hertfordshire in 1822 is a broad swathe of marshy meadows along the River Lea and River Ash.

 

Interesting survivors include Snake’s head fritillaries at Northaw, first reported by Joseph Sabine in 1815.  They had not been recorded there since but 46 plants were found during the latest survey. 

R.H. Webb and W.H. Coleman published Flora Hertfordiensis in 1849, the main author being Coleman, a 20-year old teacher at the Bluecoats School.  It recorded Pasque flower at Arbury Banks in 1840.  Their main herbarium went to the St Albans Museum and was discarded in the 1950s, though fragments survive, such as River water dropwort from the River Ash near Hertford in 1844, in the North Hertfordshire Museum Herbarium.  This species was named by Coleman in 1844.

 

 

A.R. Pryor’s A flora of Hertfordshire was published in 1887.  In the meantime, there had been massive changes to the landscape with drainage roads, railways, housing estates and enclosures.  Other notable surveys were by Joseph Pollard of Highdown (1827-1909) whose collection is at the Hitchin Museum, Thomas Bates Blow of Welwyn (1851-1941) and J.E. Little of Hitchin (1861-1935), whose notebooks are at the Hitchin Museum.  John Dony (1899-1991) gave us plant distribution maps for the first time and invented “tetrads (dot maps by 2 x 2km squares on the OS grid) in his Flora of Bedfordshire (1953), which was followed by his Flora of Hertfordshire (1967).

 

How was the current survey done?

 

The survey started from the North Hertfordshire Museum Natural History Department at Baldock in 1987 and moved to the Hertfordshire Biological Records Centre at Bury Mead Road, Hitchin from 1990-98 and subsequently was from the speaker’s home.  It involved 18 years of field work.  76 people came to the first meeting about the survey in 1987 but over half dropped out rapidly.  Many thousands of record cards were completed and submitted and all the records were computerised.  157,000 records were compiled, though there are probably 500-750,000 in total.  The output was in the form of tetrad maps.

 

The record of Marsh violet at Patmore Heath is one of the very few sites in East Anglia.  There were unexpected increases, eg of Soft shield-fern, possibly reflecting recovery from the Victorian/Edwardian fashion for fern collecting.  Unexpected finds included Spiked Star of Bethlehem at Tring, Purple small reed at Watery Grove, which used to be a Hertfordshire and Middlesex Trust nature reserve.  The last record of the latter in Hertfordshire was about 1887.

 

Unsolved mysteries include whether Mezereon is native at Great Gaddesden, where it was last recorded in the 1880s.  Just how rare is Mousetail?  It occurs in areas which are wet and muddy in winter and dry out in the summer and it can lie dormant for decades until the right conditions occur, eg it was recorded in South Mimms, where it had not been seen since 1884.  Does the Stingless nettle exist?  It occurs beside any river in Hertfordshire except on Chalk but its existence is queried nationally.

 

Totally new finds include Hybrid Woolly and Field thistle at Danesbury, Wewyn in 2007, which was a new record for the UK.  However, the survey failed to find Moon carrot (last recorded 1976), Bog pimpernel (last recorded 1965), Ground pine (last recorded 1964, though there are records in Bedfordshire only 30 feet from the county boundary and in Cambridgeshire half a mile from the boundary) and Heath cudweed (last recorded 1979).

 

Plants possibly thought to have died out during the survey include Spotted cat’s ear at Therfield Heath, Marsh fragrant orchid at Moor Hall Meadow and Field fleawort at Telegraph Hill.  Plants that may have responded to conservation include Crested cow wheat at Nuthampstead, Corn cleavers at Rothamsted (the only locality in Britain), Cornflower at Napsbury (it is often difficult to know whether this plant has been introduced but this site has old records as well) and Yellow bird’s nest at Oddy Hill.

 

Some rampant weeds include Buddleia, which was hardly mentioned in Dony’s day, Green alkanet, Prickly lettuce (an interesting rare plant in the 19th century which responds to increased nitrogen levels from car exhausts on road banks) and Fleabanes.

 

So what happens next?

 

Monitoring of scarce plants is in place with a selected group of plants being checked every year for the BSBI’s monitoring and atlases of change in the British flora 1987-2004.  Botanists in Heretfordshire are working with new taxonomies eg the Crack willow is now considered to be a hybrid between a Caucasian species and White willow.  They are also assisting Mark Spenser (Natural History Museum) to re-survey the flora of London (which includes one third of the area covered by the Hertfordshire survey since it had formerly been in Hertfordshire).

 

Changes continue

 

New plants continue to be found.  27 new species, sub-species or hybrids were recorded by the end of 2010 and another 22 new plants by October 2011.  Habitat loss or damage continues, climate change effects are increasing and there is always the unexpected.

 

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March 2012

Otters

 

Dr Daniel Allen

 

Described in the Guildford Times headline as having a “Childhood otter obsession led to new book” (ALLEN, Daniel, 2010.   Otter.   London, Reaktion Books Ltd 183pp.   ISBN978 1 86189 767 1), Daniel Allen has been fascinated by otters since watching the film Tarka the otter as a child.  He did his PhD on social practices of otter hunting, which was banned in 1978.  One of his aims is to educate and entertain people about otters to make people aware of otters and their conservation needs. 

 

It has been reported that the clean-up of UK rivers has brought otters back from the brink of extinction.  Otter hunting, which was conservation related in some respects was important for the survival of species.  It was the otter hunters who noticed the large decline in the otter population.  There were about 20 otter hunts in the UK, involving only a few thousand people in total.  The main reason for the decline was contamination of the food chain by pesticides.  Otters became a protected species in 1978 and they are now back in every county in the UK.  The last county to report otters was Kent, which reported 3 otters in October 2011.  Otters have been hunted for centuries.  Ever since the 10th century, monarchs have had otter hunters to preserve fish stocks.  By the 20th century, it had become a sport rather than pest control.

 

There are 13 species of otter around the world:

 

The fur trade is still massive in some parts of the world.  For example, 778 otter skins were confiscated in Tibet in 2003, their presence being related to the traditional head-dress/clothing in Nepal.  Body parts have been valued for supposed medicinal properties and this is still prevalent in Asia and Africa today.

 

The films Tarka the otter and Ring of bright water had major influence on attitudes to otters.  In 1960, ring of bright water sold 1 million copies in the UK and USA.  It effectively re-styled otters as playful and friendly companions with each individual having its own personality.  Tarka the otter featured the Kendal and District Otter Hounds but no otters were harmed in the production (filming was after the banning of otter hunting).

 

There are estimated to be about 10,295 otters in the UK, with the population at the low point estimated at about 1,000 (compared to polecats and pine martens with populations of 3-400).  The decline was noticed by otter hunts reporting a 75% drop in finds and kills.  Habitat protection is the main conservation activity, including individual projects such as artificial otter holts.  ~Road and rail infrastructure is a particular problem due to road kill, with otters travelling up to 40 miles across country and by no means restricted to rivers.  Action is also being taken to raise awareness among the angling community, where there is still some indiscriminate killing.  Otters were taking fish from dewponds and ornamental lakes and it has been suggested that the otter population is now sufficient to justify culling but the current population is not a sustainable population.  Fencing ponds such as those containing Koi carp may be expensive but it compares well with a maximum fine of £2,500 for killing otters.

 

Cardiff University’s otter group are looking at the diet of otters, which is tremendously varied, including frogs, newts, mink, ducks and worms as well as fish.

 

Otters are largely nocturnal so they are difficult to spot and spraints, tracks and holts give an indication of numbers but because they are wide-ranging it is difficult to tell whether signs are from multiple otters or a single otter in different parts of its range.  What is known is that increase in the number of otters leads to a reduction in the mink population.

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