Steve Partner: Let's stop dodging the otter issue

You can’t blame Mark Simmonds for being angry. In fact you can’t blame him for being absolutely scream-in-your-face furious.

His business, his livelihood, the very thing that puts food on his family’s table is slowly being destroyed before his eyes and, despite dedicating his entire life to the sport, he’s still made to feel powerless to do anything about it.

Otters, again, are the issue. Having already eaten their way through many of the rivers in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Dorset, these destructive predators have now wiped out Mark’s fish farm. The damage, he reckons, has reached a staggering £130,000.

It’s not the first time they’ve done it either. This is in fact the third similar attack in the past six years, each one as indiscriminate, each one as costly. Unsurprisingly, Mark is at the end of his tether. He wants answers. He wants accountability. And, most controversially of all, he wants action too.

There will, of course, be many of you who will recoil at his call for a cull. You’ll cower and cringe, wince and whine. To publicly encourage the killing of otters, you’ll say, is to invite public hatred. Angling has enough to worry about, without scoring a very stupid own goal.

But let’s just take stock for a moment. Isn’t much of the problem here a simple case of semantics? What if the word ‘cull’, with all its emotive, incendiary and contentious connotations, was replaced with something far more anodyne? What if we used terms like ‘management’ or ‘control’? Both, of course, have precisely the same meaning ¬ and outcome - but they are entirely more palatable to us and, more significantly, the wider public.

Perception, in a society where news is so carefully managed and manipulated, is everything. Angling just needs to do a bit  of in-house spin doctoring, that’s all. 

The point is this - despite the choice of language, Mark Simmonds is right.
The time has come for angling to call for management or control, or a cull if you will, of otters.

And we shouldn’t feel embarrassed about doing it either.

I, like many other anglers, have sat on the fence for so long on this issue - I have splinters in my backside. I’ve run scared, made excuses, written around it. Even as the weight of evidence has grown until it’s become crushingly heavy, I’ve avoided reality.

You just can’t, I’ve thought, cull Tarka. I was - and still am - right, too. You can’t cull Tarka. But you can manage or control him. You have to.

Just like cormorants before them, otters have become a menace to Britain’s fish, fisheries and fishermen.

First released as part of a reintroduction programme by the Otter Trust in 1983, over the next 16 years a total of 117 animals found their way on to rivers in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northants, Rutland, Hampshire, Dorset, Bedfordshire, Essex, Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire and the Upper Thames.

According to experts, breeding since then has been so widespread that the cubs can no longer be tracked. Basically, otters have boomed.

That should, of course, come as no surprise whatsoever. These creatures are predators without equal, indiscriminate eating machines that have the complete freedom of our countryside. Think kids in a sweet shop and you’ll get some idea of the fun they’ve had. Life, if you’re an otter, must be pretty darn good right now. It’s just a shame the same thing can’t be said for the fish populations they’ve eaten their way through.

Let’s look at some basic facts. Since otters reached the brink of extinction back in the mid-1970s, the landscape has changed dramatically.

Eels, the species that were once their staple diet, are in such decline they border on being non-existent in many places. As such, other fish are on the menu. And the bigger they are, the easier and more worthwhile they are to catch and destroy.

I’m becoming weary and increasingly disbelieving of the claim that a natural balance will be struck, the argument that one day a healthy stock of fish will live next to a thriving community of otters. I just don’t buy that at all. On the contrary, in fact. It might seem a tad apocalyptic, but I can honestly see a scenario where small to medium-sized rivers ¬ the likes of the Great Ouse, Wensum, Windrush, Teme, Dorset Stour and Hampshire Avon to name just a few ¬ will be completely bereft of specimen fish.

I can see a scenario when more clubs like Bungay Cherry Tree are forced to give up waters that have been emptied. And I can see a scenario when unprotected, natural waters will be all but worthless to anglers.

Unless otters are managed, that is. Even though they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (it is an offence to kill one and the crime is punishable by a £5,000 fine or six months in prison), they can be hunted with a special licence.

According to Natural England - the body in charge of administering these permits - an otter can be killed if it is to ‘prevent serious damage to livestock, food for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or any other form of property or to fisheries’.

So why then, has one never been granted?

Surely a fish farmer, who makes his living selling what he breeds, has grounds to control otters if they are eating the one commodity he deals in?

Or what about a fishery owner who has his stock destroyed? Or an angling club forced to give up its lease and lose revenue because its members having nothing left to fish for?

Please don’t mention fencing. The Environment Agency, under pressure from certain factions within angling, has pledged £100,000 to fund otter-proof defences. But this piecemeal offering is more a publicity stunt than a worthwhile exercise ¬especially when you consider that the cost of safeguarding one fishery can run into tens of thousands of pounds. That is if you can apply in the first place. The very places under the most threat ¬ namely rivers ¬ are impossible to fence, and only club and public access waters qualify for potential funding.

Add all this up and you can’t help but feel that anglers are the wronged, and powerless, party in all of this. It feels like these creatures have been released without a single thought, let alone risk assessment, for the impact they would have on an already fragile environment. And it makes you think that these do-gooders have zero concern for what they can’t see. Fish? Who cares, so long as there’s enough to feed the otters.

I know there is still something of a split within fishing on this issue.

Unlike our near unanimous view on cormorants, we aren’t as one. While some of us are adamant that otters are the most destructive thing to hit fishing in years, others can’t really see what all the fuss is about. As far as they’re concerned, Lutra lutra isn’t a problem.

But, I wonder, is this ambivalence simply born of ignorance? By that I don’t mean a lack of understanding, more a lack of actual awareness. If, as most anglers do nowadays, you spend your fishing life on the banks of a commercial fishery, the chances of you stumbling across an otter, or the remnants of its activity, are extremely slim. Apart from anything else, they are nocturnal beasts who become virtually invisible during daylight hours.

Additionally, despite fish-stuffed commercials being something of a honey pot to a rampant predator, the owners of these venues aren’t stupid. Just as many did with cormorants, they will simply take the law into their own hands. If you fish these kinds of waters and you haven’t seen evidence of otters, there’s a good reason - they will probably have been snared.

Don’t be naïve. Commercial fisheries aren’t run for the good of the owner’s health (the clue, if you needed it, is in the name). They are run as financial enterprises and if their most valuable commodity ¬ namely the fish is threatened by a third party, that third party is likely to be snuffed out. Quickly. Quickly and quietly.

What angling needs to do is unite on this issue. Because if it can unite, it can convince its governing body ¬ the Angling Trust - that action needs to be taken. And by action, I mean helping make perfectly legal licences available to those who need them.

Pressure, too, must be exerted on the Environment Agency. To continue to expect anglers to pay £26 a year for a rod licence when the fish they expect to catch are being decimated is, frankly, unacceptable.

Remember, the Agency is supposed to safeguard fisheries ¬ not stand by and allow them to be systematically ruined.

Up until now those who believe the otter problem is widespread and growing have only called for science as a weapon to prove just how desperate the situation is.
Now, though, in Mark Simmonds we have the first very public plea for a cull.

While I’d prefer to call it ‘management’, I am compelled to agree with him.
The question is, will the rest of the sport join - or turn its back - on us?