Otters return to slaughter prize carp

Author: Michael McCarthy

One of Britain’s best-loved mammals, the otter suddenly declined and became extinct over much of the country in the 1950s and 1960s, probably as a result of poisoning by new organochlorine pesticides. It is now returning to many rivers encouraged by a national restoration project, on which pounds 700,000 a year is being spent.

In the intervening period, however, there has been an explosion of interest in specialist carp angling and there are now thousands of carp lakes where devoted anglers, often fishing though the night, hunt prize fish of up to 30lbs and more – all to be carefully returned to the water after being caught.

Yet for otters carp waters represents a magnificent larder, especially in winter when the big fish lie dormant on the lake bed and are caught with ease. A single animal can wreak financial havoc by killing a 30lb carp that may be worth pounds 2,000. One owner of a long-established and profitable carp fishery at Carlisle, Fred Sykes, was put out of business by hungry otters. The fishery he built up over 15 years fell apart within weeks in January 1992 when recolonising otters ate his stock. But rather than hit back at the animals – which are protected by law – Mr Sykes has joined other fishery owners and anglers in helping draw up guidelines to highlight the problem and, it is hoped, solve it.

Published jointly today by the Environment Agency and the Wildlife Trusts, the guidelines warn that otters may become a problem for more and more still waters and fish farms, especially if the official target of restoring the animal to all UK rivers by 2010 is met.

They suggest various ways that fishery owners can protect themselves, in particular by electric fencing, and by developing “decoy ponds” stocked with fish of much lower value, and suggest they take precautions before they suffer the attentions of otters, not after.

The guidelines are endorsed by national angling associations, in particular the Specialist Anglers Conservation Group (Sagc), which represents carp anglers. “It is essential that we work together with conservationists, so there is no conflict,” said the Sagc vice-chairman, Chris Burt. Lisa Schneidau, newly appointed director of the Otters and Rivers Project, run by Water UK and the Wildlife Trusts, agrees. “We want environmentalists to understand the problems anglers have, and anglers to accept that otters have a right to be there,” she said. Both feel an understanding is essential because the returning animals, so welcome to the public at large, have caused real anguish among carp fishermen. Mr Burt added: “It’s not like trout fisheries, where the fish in general are killed and eaten. Specialist carp anglers grow very, very attached to their fish. They know them, catch them again and again and give them names. They’re never killed. Anyone who went to a carp water and took a fish for the table, killed it or even damaged it in some way, would be blackballed, chucked out of their club or not allowed back in their syndicate.” Otters, though, see carp differently, Mr Burt laments. “In winter, in cold weather in still waters, you’ve got 25lbs of fish just lying doggo on the bottom. It’s like putting a Big Mac in front of a teenager. They’ll walk in there, won’t they?”

Otters are now reaching into Dorset, Hampshire, Kent and Cheshire, and parts of Essex, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire, a London conference on the progress of the project will hear today. The map on this page, to be published today, represents the latest information on their current status.

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