Discover Scotland’s Elusive Otters

With their dense fur, webbed feet, and ears and noses that can close when underwater, Otters are well adapted for living in and around water. While European otter (Lutra lutra) populations have declined across the United Kingdom, and are listed with the IUCN as ‘near threatened’, visitors to Scotland are still likely to see these fascinating mammals in the wild on the west coast of the country and the Shetland Islands, and they are usually to be found at zoos and wildlife parks in other parts of the country. In fact, up to 12% of the UK breeding population of otters is found in the Shetland Islands, most likely due to the region’s relatively undisturbed coastal areas which provide a healthy environment and abundant food for the otters.

Nature-lovers who would like to observe the otters in their natural habitat need plenty of patience, as it may take some time for these reticent creatures to make an appearance – and they are likely to scurry off at the first sign of anything they see as a threat. But visitors who have spent some time otter-spotting will be quick to agree that the experience is worth the effort. Making use of an experienced guide who knows the area is recommended, as telltale signs of otter activity may lead to seeing the animal. They prefer to make their burrows (holts) in a riverbank, and this is the best place to look for evidence of the presence of otters, such as their five-toed footprints and their distinctive droppings (spraints), which may contain undigested fish bones.

Although showing a preference for fish, otters have a varied diet that includes insects, frogs, crustaceans, birds and other small mammals, such as young beavers. As strongly territorial animals, otters will defend their territory against an otter of the same sex, but will generally tolerate an overlapping of their territory with an otter of the opposite sex. They breed all year around, with mating taking place in water and the gestation period being between 60 and 64 days. Up to four pups may be born and they are dependent on their mother for just over a year. Apart from defending the territory in which the female and his offspring are living, the male has very little to do with the raising of the pups, which are ready to swim by the age of ten weeks.

Be sure to lookout for otters when exploring the Shetland Islands and west coast of Scotland.