Friday, 14 December 2012

My mother and her otters

Daphne Neville with her tame otter Bee
Daphne Neville
who has been working in otter conservation from 1981

In 1981 we learnt from a survey conducted by English Nature that there was a disastrous decline in the native population of otters in England and Wales. It was estimated that there were only 80 pairs left whilst Scotland was maintaining about 6,000 otters.  

My mother took it upon herself to raise public awareness of our aquatic eco-systems. Over the years she has been asked to hand rear a number of zoo-breed Asian short-clawed otters who have delighted the public whilst acting as ambassadors for their species. Thousands of adults and children have met the otters and learnt how the public can help encourage the revival of our native species - often about a topic they have not considered before.

Daphne Neville's tame otter Bee
Our first tame otter ~ called Bee, as otters smell of honey

It's clear that England and Wales were about to lose their native otters when Mum began working.  This major British mammal species is now reviving thanks to recognition that we need pure river water and undisturbed river banks. My parents advise farmers on how to accommodate wild otters and encourage the public to pick up litter, control their dogs, and drive slowly along lanes at night to reduce road casualties. They have been able to convey the difficult concept of water quality by taking otters to occasions such as the Water UK conference and The Otter Forum at the Natural History Museum.  The decline of otters in England and Wales related entirely to pollution: the discharge of industrial waste such as chemicals used in the manufacture of carpets entering the River Severn, farming effluent from slurry pits and slippage pits, sheep dip and indiscriminate use of PCBs and DDT insecticides. Otters are a vital indicator species, their health directly reflecting the health of British rivers.

Daphne Neville with her tame otter Bee
Daphne Neville with Bee the Otter

The work is physically demanding – it requires travelling long distances, working long hours in all weathers, getting soaking wet, then camping on site - but Mum always finds the energy to give a child her full attention, even when totally exhausted at the end of a long day.

The rewards? One man told her that he had just completed a zoology degree, having been inspired by a talk she gave at his primary school years ago. That was enough. She has done much to educate inner-city adults and children who know nothing about otters. When she appeared at Countryside Live, on the Olympic site at Hackney Marshes in North London, I heard people look at an otter and ask, ‘Is it a squirrel?’, ‘Is it a rat?’ and ‘Does it eat vegetables?’

My drawings of our tame otters can be seen here.
with further sketches on this page.

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