Seeing an Otter in the river Wharfe is always an uplifting experience. It’s not something that happens every day. I speak to people, who have been walking beside the river for years, who are still hoping to see their first Otter. However, it has been suggested that, in recent months, sightings have become more frequent. For example, some weeks ago, a small crowd gathered along an Ilkley park-side footpath to watch Otters feeding in the river.

Of course, an increase in sightings could happen because people are more alert to their presence. Or perhaps Otters in this area are becoming ‘desensitised’ to people and dogs, and therefore less fearful. My view is that Otters will, in some circumstances, tolerate a degree of proximity to people, but there are some very important related issues that we need to consider.

First, even if a degree of desensitisation is occurring, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. For example, interactions with dogs don’t always end well for Otters! Second, over the last few months there have been Otter cubs in the area. This will place additional feeding demands on the mother, meaning that foraging needs to happen over extended periods. Third, the bankside vegetation along substantial sections of the river has become very depleted. Consequently, there is much less opportunity for Otters to be discreet. This also makes fleeing from threat a more difficult proposition and feeding near the edges of parts of the river carries greater risk. Related to this, Otters need secure places where they can dry off and rest, and safe areas along the river bank where they can land and feed on larger prey.

With these issues in mind, the Wharfedale Naturalists Society and the Friends of Ilkley Riverside Parks, are putting together a project, that I hope will come to fruition and be widely supported. The aim is to reinstate vegetative cover along some parts of the riverbank. Of course, besides Otters, this would also benefit other riparian species, such as Kingfishers, Dippers, and Trout. It will mean, in some places, the water is less accessible from the footpath, particularly for dogs. Of course, there will still be very many places where there is easy access. The hope is that it will help restore an environmental balance and conserve important wildlife habitat.

If we are fortunate enough to see an Otter, it doesn’t follow that it is equally thrilled to see us. The Otter’s presence and behaviour may be driven by circumstances. Hopefully the river environment can be maintained in such a way that sometimes Otters will tolerate us, but this can be on their terms.