With the wonderful news of the arrival of three otter cubs here at Leighton Moss, this blog takes a closer look at this charismatic species. 

Brrrr, we're in the grips of a cold snap here at the Moss so a lot of our pools have been fully or partially frozen. While this may not seem to be great weather for us humans to go exploring on the nature reserve it should lend itself to some excellent wildlife sightings. In particular, otters and bitterns! Our otter cubs were first spotted this weekend (Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 January) with their mum. The cubs will stay with their mum for up to a year while they learn the skills they need to survive, so we can look forward to lots of wonderful sights of the cubs playing together and learning to hunt at the Causeway Pool. So if you take any photos of the lovely family, do share them on the Facebook group for everyone to enjoy! 

Photo credit: Richard Cousens 

For the past few weeks lucky visitors have been offered some wonderful sightings of these charismatic creatures from either the Causeway or Lower hides almost every day. To be able to catch a small glimpse into their world and their behaviours is a real treat and a privilege. As a general rule, mornings are better for otter activity, but we have had great afternoon sightings too.

Young otter cub. Photo credit: Dave Hall 

Their (brief) conservation story…

Otters require clean, freshwater habitats (particularly rivers) to thrive. While they mainly eat fish, otters will eat what is most abundant and have been known to eat amphibians, crayfish, waterfowl and small mammals too. Unfortunately, fresh water habitats do suffer pollution from neighbouring land uses such as agriculture and urban developments. Toxic chemicals used in some pesticides do unfortunately find their way into these habitats. This threatens the whole ecosystem of the habitat as the majority of aquatic plants and invertebrates struggle to survive in polluted waters. This then has a knock-on effect for the fish and other wildlife that rely on this habitat being healthy, and the populations shrink as a result.

By the 1950s otters had suffered a huge population decline due to water pollution by agricultural chemicals. Otters were also historically persecuted, and were hunted with the aid of dogs. Fast forward to the 1970s and the only healthy otter populations left were in Scotland. Here at Leighton Moss, otters could be seen occasionally before disappearing from the site in the 1990s.

Not all doom and gloom…

There has been a concentrated effort from lots of stakeholders to remove the harmful pesticides used in farming practices (such as DDT and agro-chloride), with many being banned to help improve the water quality in our lakes, rivers and ponds. Also, otter hunting came to an end in 1978. Otters have made a remarkable comeback since then, with healthy populations present across much of Britain today.

Otters returned to Leighton Moss in 2006 where they have bred successfully most year since. At Leighton Moss, the warden team carefully monitors the water quality on the reserve to ensure the reedbed (and its inhabitants) remains healthy.

Photo credit: Mike Malpass

Further afield in the rest of Britain, otters have benefited from river habitat restoration schemes which can involve allowing rivers to meander once again, planting new areas of reedbed or removing barriers such as weirs.

A brief recent sightings roundup

Recent sightings include up to six incredibly active marsh harriers hunting across the reedbed. There is a fantastic variety of waterfowl on the reserve but currently our ducks are congregating in the open water bodies on the reserve. The elusive great grey shrike has been true to form and popping up for a few erratic sightings. There are up to four great white egrets on the main reserve (normally Causeway Pool and Lilian’s) and there have been excellent sightings of snipe from all main reserve hides. The supposed-to-be elusive water rail continues to show well along the path towards Tim Jackson and Grisedale Hides and we can’t forget bittern sightings. Bitterns have been sighted almost daily from either Causeway or Lower Hide.

The coastal pools are host to large gatherings of lapwing, oystercatcher, and black-tailed godwit alongside a large variety of waterfowl including wigeon, goosander and pintail. The coastal pools remain the place to go for the starling murmurations, with some fantastic displays occurring over the previous week.

If you want to know what's being spotted at Leighton Moss on a daily basis, don't forget to check the Facebook group, Twitter feed or the Lancaster & District Birdwatching Society website. We also encourage all visitors to write their sightings in the recent sightings book.

Until next time,

Naomi. Visitor Experience Intern.