Everyone loves otters. These gorgeous creatures are a delight to watch in the wild, if you’re lucky enough to spot them.
But if you can’t get see these elusive animals in the countryside, why not take a trip to the Washington Wetlands’ otter enclosure, a great example of conservation in action.
Washington is home to a family of three captive Asian Short-Clawed Otters. Now the family has a new baby otter called Little Squeak, born in May 2015, to thrill visitors.
This weekend was my first chance to get up close and personal with their new baby which is unashamedly cute and playful.
Little Squeak is now 9-months-old and has grown so big that it’s hard to distinguish her from the parents.
The family can be seen feeding. swimming, rolling around in the mud and juggling pebbles on their tummies. Visitors are rewarded by a close-up display of otter life which is entertaining as well as eye-opening.
Meet the otter family
Proud parents, Musa and Mimi, arrived at the reserve a couple of years ago and there was an instant attraction despite the presence of another female. The pair bonded and the rest is history.
The couple are are highly vocal and active, especially at feeding time. Listen out for their range of squeaks and the pair’s animated displays as they run amok in their enclosure.
The otters are especially dexterous with their hands and claws – one of my favourite rituals is watching the otters picking up stones and sharpening their claws.
Don’t miss feeding time when the otters come up really close to eat their food, posing for visitors and sometimes sharing a snack with each other.
There was one great moment when the male shared his last piece of salmon with the female. A bit like sharing your last chocolate treat.
World’s smallest otter
Short-clawed Asian otters are the smallest of the world’s 13 otter species. They are small but perfectly adapted to their environment.
Their natural home is southern and south-eastern Asia, especially parts of India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, southern China and the Philippines.
They’re also known by several other names including the Oriental or Malaysian small-clawed otter, and the Asian clawless otter.
Why are they living in Washington on a nature reserve then? The answer is for conservation and education reasons.
Short-clawed Asian otters are classified as a vulnerable species, hence the big conservation push. It’s a treat to have them at Washington Wetlands nature reserve.
Although not listed as endangered, they are seriously threatened by rapid habitat destruction, hunting, and pollution.
Scientists see them as an indicator species so their population indicates the general health of their habitat and other species.
They are also great animals to watch for both adults and kids. We can learn so much about their lifestyle by watching the way they live as close-knit families.
In the wild, Short-Clawed Asian Otters can raise large extended families with three-six pups, but here at Washington they have only a single offspring.
Even one otter pup is an exciting first for the reserve which has never had a baby otter raised in captivity before.
The pups are born toothless with closed eyes but after 40 days, the youngster’s eyes open and by 60 days they are able to swim. By nine months, they are highly active and part of the family’s daily routines.
This species of otters remain together for life with the female as the dominant partner, not a bad idea by my reckoning!
In the wild, these Short-Clawed Asian otters are well-adapted to their wetland environment.
Their webbed paws and manual dexterity mean that they can feed on a variety of animals including crabs, mussels, frogs, and snails.
At Washington, with its colder northern climate, they are fed largely on raw salmon, a tasty treat for these fish loving mammals.
Small-clawed Asian otters have a vocabulary of a dozen or more calls. Listen to see if you can recognise what they’re saying to each other as they race around their living space.
They also have a distress call for when they’re in trouble.
Hopefully, the otters at Washington will rarely need to use that call. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that these otters will live longer lives in captivity.
Although this Asian pair are a non-native species there’s an important educational value in having these otters on display.
They’re housed in a spacious enclosure which they love – and it’s a thrill to see these creatures looking so happy and secure.
These short clawed otters are classed as mustelids which roughly translates as ‘smelly animals’. There’s is certainly a strong small of otter when you get near them.
This is very much in common with all otters. In the wild, one of the best ways of finding a habitat where otters live is to look out for signs of otter poo or spraint which has a distinctive and strong smell.
At Washington, it’s interesting to watch their eating habits at the two daily public food feeding sessions.
It’s fun to spot them take their food to their favourite spot to devour it, often with great vigour as they rip it to pieces.
I enjoyed watching this otter take its salmon dinner to its tube to chew on its special treat (see photo below).
When not feeding or sleeping, the otters can be seen exploring their territory in the compound. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them swimming with the grace of Olympic champions.
During the recent cold winter weather, the ice on parts of their watery home threw up another challenge. How would Little Squeak cope with the strange, weather conditions?
She was surprisingly agile on the ice, although broke through one section in an amusing foray without her mum and dad in tow.
Otters of another kind are also very much on the agenda at Washington Wetlands reserve.
It is hoped that the native British otters, now living on the nearby River Wear, will visit the reserve’s new otter holt which is being built on the riverside.
If successful, that will mean that we’ll be able to see the wild variety of British otters too from the comfort of a wildlife hide.
Numbers of wild otters at WWT Washington Wetland Centre could also increase following a grant from Sunderland City Council.
This has enabled the reserve to install three new otter holts close to the reserve’s boundary along the River Wear, where they hope wild Eurasian otters will take refuge and breed in the months and years ahead.
The reserve has had small pockets of wild otters for some time, and it’s keen to improve the habitat to encourage the animals which are highly territorial.
The otters will only come and stay in this habitat if living conditions are right for them.
I’m sure that this will be the start of a great new adventure at Washington Wetlands Reserve.
One thing is for sure, the otter spectacle at Washington Wildlife and Wetlands Reserve is getting better all the time.
STOP PRESS – The otter family have four new babies for 2016. I’ll be keeping you updated as soon as they’re large enough to get outside!
Tammy Tour Guide to Washington Wetlands
Washington Wetlands is located about 10 miles south-east of Newcastle upon Tyne and three miles west of Sunderland in North East England.
The reserve is open daily except Christmas Day so you can chart wildlife across the seasons. Opening times are 9:30-17:30 in summer and 9:30-4:30 in winter (admission fee). There’s also plenty of car parking.
Public transport is available on weekdays and Saturdays but almost non-existent on Sundays. The best plan is to travel to Sunderland Interchange by Metro and then catch a Lime 8 bus (every 30 minutes) from the adjoining bus station (stand K). The bus takes around 12 minutes and stops on the main road near the reserve, leaving a short walk down to the centre.
Don’t miss the otter feeds and talks at 11.30am and 3pm daily when you can get a chance to find out more about these brilliant creatures.
Watch as they are fed with salmon and fish bits, and discover more about these animals and the importance of conserving them.
Don’t miss the collections of birds around the Washington site with its variety of wetland habits. Wildlife lovers should head out to the wild areas of the reserve with its bird wading ponds and lagoons with hides.