Shetland Otter Fishing and Feeding

Well known for the otters that hunt along the rugged coastline, Shetland has a healthy population of these elusive characters.  The cool waters provide a plentiful supply of slow moving bottom dwelling fish.  Although they do eat larger fish and sometimes even ducks and rabbits, their main diet is small fish, octopus and crabs. 

Their favourite meals are eel-like species, long and slender and easy to bring ashore.  Butterfish, eelpout, five-bearded rockling and lumpsuckers provide a hearty meal.  If fish stocks are low then the otters will consider the plentiful crabs.  Not all fish are nutritionally equal and the otters will choose those which provide the most value over the equivalent of a bar of chocolate in the the human world.

Living in well defined, narrow strips the female will be resident in her 'group range', shared with other resident females.  This can be up to about 4km long and range from 100m inland to about 80m offshore.  Within this area she will then have her 'core area', a 350m area that is her's.  This ensures there is less competition for food and holts and living with neighbours is more manageable.

We knew there were otters around.  Fresh spraint was obvious on dominant rocks, grass was flattened where the otters had rolled and the holt was clearly in use.

After a morning of waiting and watching, as low tide approached we saw movement offshore. We had missed her emerging from her holt.  A head surfacing before the smack of a tail as she dived again was the first we saw of her.  She was hunting, actively looking for something to bring in on the slack of low tide.  Eventually she turns and heads diagonally for shore, a sure sign that she has caught something that cannot be enjoyed in the water.  A bow wave ahead of her as her feast slowly realises it’s fate, she swims directly to the shore without hesitation. 

Coming ashore she blends with the kelp.  Lost for a moment, she emerges as our eyes adjust to the landscape, the kelp and limpet encrusted rocks, which appear as the tide recedes keep her hidden momentarily.  Oblivious to her audience she finds a comfortable rock, clear of the water and moves the lumpsucker she has caught into her paws and then starts to munch.  The noise of bones being crushed carries in the wind, buffeting our faces but as planned taking our scent and sounds away from her.

For 10minutes she enjoys this large fish before heading along the rocks and back out to sea.  We follow her progress as she heads parallel to the shoreline, dipping in and out of the kelp fronds.   Again there is no hesitation.  She is returning to her holt, fishing over for a while.  Time to sleep and digest.


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