otter Anglers claiming: Otters are killing of the fish stocksThe European River Otter (Lutra lutra) which was once almost eradicated from British waters is beginning to make a come-back thanks to improved environmental care and the reintroduction of captive-bred specimens.

Now, anglers and fishing clubs are calling for more research, governmentally funded fences, and – in some cases – even the right to cull otters. Some fishing clubs have already closed down after having their stocks devoured by otters, while others have been forced to lower their fees since they have less fish to offer than before. Clubs are also spending thousands of pounds on restocking their ponds.

Until the 1970s, otters were hunted in the kingdom using special otter hounds, and the population also suffered greatly from the consequences of habitat destruction and pollution. The use of pesticides proved especially fatal and in the 1970s the population was almost completely gone. Thanks to pollution control, habitat restoration, and a ban on otter hunting, the UK has however once again became a favourable country for this aquatic predator and the reintroduction of captive-bred have proven highly successful. Otters are now living even in urban rivers.

Dr Tony Mitchell-Jones, a mammal specialist from Natural England, said that otters had been released into the wild at the rate of more than seven a year between 1983 and 1999, but that no captive-bred otters had been released since then.

When the last large-scale survey was carried out in 2003, the European river otter was found in more than five times as many areas as in 1979.

On June 9, a meeting will take place in Hemel Hempstead were representatives of the Angling Trust, the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Countryside Council for Wales will discuss the issue of otters competing with anglers for fish. The Angling Trust has announced that they will exact government support for special otter fences in an effort to quieten calls for a cull.

Mark Lloyd, the chief executive, said: “What we need is public funding for fencing because fisheries are important economic units that provide people with their livelihoods. What has to be stressed is that anglers are not anti-otter. If I see one when I’m fishing on a river it makes my day.”

Nick Pottle, secretary of the Lakeside angling club, near Lowestoft, said: “Our lake is now all but empty of fish, we have two families of otters that have cleared the fish out. The Environment Agency say we must put up a fence to stop the otters at our expense as we would not qualify for a grant. That is the end of our club.”

The Angling Times, a journal for sport fishers, are calling for more research into otter predation. Richard Lee, its editor, said: “The slaughter of these animals has been driven underground. It is already going on. If you watch £20,000 worth of stock disappear in just a few days – what are the owners going to do? We are desperate for research so the issue is fully understood. We don’t want random culling. But we want to stop fisheries’ owners taking the law into their own hands. We need some proper research with all the options on the table.”

One of the reasons behind the belligerent situation may be another man-made environmental problem: the disappearance of the eels. During recent years, the number of eels has fallen dramatically in British waters. Eels are the otter’s staple diet and as long as there are plenty of eels the risk of otters attacking trout, salmon, pike, and similar species is low. However, as the eel population wanes the otters are forced to look elsewhere for food – causing confrontations between them and fishermen who do not like to see vast amounts of highly prized fish species ending up in the belly of an otter.

Many anglers refuse to publicly discuss otter hunting, fearing that public opinion will turn against them if they openly call for culling. On of few anglers openly arguing in favour of culling is Ian Chillcott, one of the country’s leading coarse anglers and a fishing writer. “Fisheries are being absolutely destroyed by these cuddly, little murdering blighters”, Chillcott said. “Livelihoods are being ruined but everyone is afraid to use the word ‘culling’. No one wants widespread mass slaughter, but there is a need for very targeted culling. It has to be done in a controlled way and not indiscriminate. No one wants to get rid of them, just for them to be better managed.”

Mitchell-Jones does not think that licensed killing of otters will take place anytime soon.

“Things are looking much better for the otter but it is not yet back everywhere it should be. Control of otter populations is likely to be discussed at the meeting tomorrow. I’m not going to prejudge the situation but there is a presumption against the licensing of killing of protected species unless there are extremely good reasons for doing so. For culling, you would have to show that the control would contribute to the solution of a problem.”

In the mean time, there are indications of some landowners and fishermen taking the law into their own hands. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is an offence to kill an otter, punishable by a £5,000 fine or six months in prison. Otters can only be hunted with a special licence and not a single one of these licenses has been issued. Despite this, some anglers have told reporters of otter hunting taking place in the British countryside.