Legal protection

Within the UK and across Europe the otter (Lutra lutra) is protected from harm and disturbance of both the animal itself and its places of rest through: 

  • The EC Habitats Directive Annex II & IV (transposed into domestic law as the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2012); 

  • The Bern Convention 1982 Appendix II; 

  • The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) 1975 Appendix I; 

  • The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 Schedule 5 & 6; and

  • is UK Red Data Listed (2013).


This protection is due to the severe Europe-wide decline in populations observed during the 1950s-1970s. Recovery of numbers in the UK has been excellent but this is not true across many European countries where the otter is still limited to small numbers of isolated animals or survives only through successful reintroductions. 



  • The otter is a member of the mustelid family also containing species such as the badger, stoat and weasel. There are 13 species of otter worldwide.
  • It has 5 toes which are webbed together. This can be crucial evidence when identifying otter prints in mud and sand. Badger and mink also have 5 toes while pet dogs and foxes have 4 toes.
  • Otters hunt small fish (occasionally very large fish such as salmon), crayfish and may take frogs, toads, newts and young rabbits or birds at certain times of year.
  • They live in close association with water though spend much of their time on land resting. Resting sites are commonly known as holts when they are underground and couches when they are above ground.
  • Otter 'spraint' (or faeces) are distinctive. They are deposited on rocks, fallen trees, grassy tussocks and almost all prominant landmarks within or adjacent to a watercourse. They can be very small or several centimetres in length and contain bones and scales. The smell is inoffensive, earthy and fishy. Colour can vary greatly though black/brown through to brown/green is most common. They are clearly left as markers however there is much research into the messages they may contain.
  • Inland the otter is largely crespuscular, being most active at dusk and dawn. On the coast we have the same species but they can be active throughout the day. It is widely believed that the inland otter has adopted this crespuscular life style due to persecution over several centuries. The species was even listed as vermin in 1566 and bounties were paid per head for each otter killed.
  • Otter hunting has also been a sport and/or method of population control around fisheries throughout what is known of its history. Hunting of the species was banned in all forms in the 1970's. The traditional otterhound is now rarer than the otter itself in the UK.
  • Research into this species is largely by observation of distinct populations such as Shetland and therefore reaching a consensus among otter professionals can be difficult.

Questions our local research has helped answer


Where is the best place to find otter spraint?
During a survey of the Tyne from Warden to Jarrow, 26.5% of samples were found on the main River Tyne but on tributaries and small streams 73.5% of spraints were found. This is likely to  be because smaller tributaries are easier to study and therefore investigations wanting to collect spraint quickly and in abundance should be weighted towards smaller watercourses (dependent on the overall outcomes of the investigation).
Do otters avoid human disturbance?
Spraint densities are unexpectedly abundant in highly disturbed areas. It would appear that where watercourses are suitable otters will leave signs which may hold signals that can be interpreted by other otters in the area. 
Are there otters in Newcastle?
During a non-invasive DNA study which included the Ouseburn, we collected evidence of two-three males which appear resident and a single female. Further studies will tell us more.
What is the density of otters on the Tyne?
Through our non-invasive DNA study we estimated 0.22 otters per kilometre of the Tyne survey
How many records of otter road collisions does the Otter Network receive? 
Otter road casualties vary from year to year depending on conditions but we generally receive between 10 and 15 records annually. The EA also collects carcasses and there will many more unreported. Several carcasses disappear to what we think are taxidermists etc but it should be noted that it is illegal to possess an otter carcass or any part thereof without an appropriate license issued by Natural England.
How many otters are sent to Cardiff annually?
When we can safely collect an otter carcass we do so and the Environment Agency then sends them to the Cardiff University Otter Project for post mortem. Around 80% of those reported to us are sent to Cardiff and the EA also collects dead otters.