Otter (Lutra lutra) - Species Action Plan

Ref 1/S3 Species Action Plan 3
Plan Author: Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Plan Co-ordinator: Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Revised February 2002

Action Plan Summary

Current Status


  • The otter is listed on Appendix 1 of CITES, Appendix 11 of the Bern Convention and Annexes 11 and IV of the Habitats Directive. It is protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Schedule 2 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1994. The European sub-species is listed as globally threatened on the IUCN/WCMC Red Data List.

National Status.

  • The otter has a wide but sporadic distribution throughout the UK. It is most frequent in Scotland and the outer islands, Wales, Northern Ireland, parts of northern England, the West Country and East Anglia, the latter largely as a result of a reintroduction programme.
  • In the majority of England, parts of Wales and areas of Scotland, it is in the process of recovering from a major population crash in the late 1950’s (primarily due to the widespread use of organochlorine insecticides) and its population is increasing. 

Norfolk Status

  • The otter is currently found on all river catchments in Norfolk, on all main rivers, although it occurs patchily and/or only sporadically on some. Strongholds include the rivers Ant, Thet, Waveney, Wensum and Wissey. Recent surveys in 1997 and 2000-01 indicate a continuing, gradual increase in population and distribution, from a known low population in 1985.
  • The Norfolk population is largely derived from animals released during 1984-1996 as part of a breeding and reintroduction programme undertaken by the Otter Trust.

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Current factors affecting the habitat in Norfolk

  • Otter distribution in Norfolk is currently increasing, although numbers are not known.
  • No factors are known to be currently causing a decline, although several factors may be suppressing ongoing population and distributional expansion. These include poor riparian and a lack of wetland habitats; poor food supplies, particularly unsustainable fish populations on some rivers; a lack of suitable, undisturbed areas for breeding; accidental road deaths; direct persecution; and drowning in nets (fyke nets) set for eels. 

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Current Action in Norfolk

  • Otter releases in Norfolk, as part of a breeding and re-introduction programme undertaken by the Otter Trust, ceased in 1996. 
  • A county survey was completed in 1997 and reports (divided by Environment Agency area (i.e. Central & Eastern Areas)) published (Yaxley 1997a&b). These reports establish baseline information on presence and distribution and outline how actions in the national species action plan for otter can be applied at county level. 
  • 141 sites in Norfolk surveyed in 2000-01 as part of the National Otter Survey of England. 
  • Routine monitoring of the presence of otters on the rivers Bure, Glaven, Wensum and Wissey is undertaken by Norfolk Otter Surveyors’ Group volunteers, managed by the Anglian Otters and Rivers Project. 
  • Otter is included as an ‘interest feature’ within The Broads candidate Special Area of Conservation (cSAC), the North Norfolk Coast cSAC and the Waveney Valley Fens cSAC. 

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Action Plan Objectives and Targets


  • Maintain and expand existing populations. 
  • By 2010 restore breeding otters to all catchments where they have been recorded since 1960. 


  • Maintain and expand existing populations. 
  • Ensure suitable conditions for otters on all major rivers by 2005. 

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Norfolk Distribution

Broad-scale map of otter distribution in Norfolk, inclusive of all records from 1996-2005.

Management Guidance

(This guidance is a general summary; for detailed information or advice consult the references or contacts below)

Otters require river valleys with good water quality, an abundant, varied food supply and sympathetically managed vegetation offering undisturbed, secluded sites with sufficient cover and shelter for breeding, lying-up (during daylight hours) and feeding. As a large proportion of an otter’s diet comprises fish, favoured areas will support abundant fish populations, with appropriate bankside and in-channel features such as large overhanging trees, marginal tall-herb vegetation and in-channel riffles and pools.

The relative importance of each habitat feature is difficult to assess and may vary according to other factors such as food availability and levels of disturbance. However, the following features are important in providing breeding, resting and feeding sites:

  • broad-leaved woodland and mature trees 
  • scrub including willow carr 
  • tall herbaceous bankside vegetation 
  • reed and sedge beds 
  • small streams and ditch/dyke networks 
  • lakes and ponds 
  • in-channel features including islands and sandbars. 

Otters, particularly males, have large overlapping home ranges extending up to 40km along river valleys. They are mobile, opportunistic predators capable of utilising seasonally available food sources (e.g. breeding amphibians in Spring). Movements and foraging trips are not restricted to main river channels and may encompass a variety of watercourses and wetland habitats across river valleys plus, in some locations, coastal marshes and estuaries. Although it may be difficult for a single landowner to provide all the features that otters require, individual riparian and wetland habitat creation and enhancements contribute towards the overall structural diversity of river valleys and wetlands, which in turn yields benefits for otters.

Riverbanks and surrounding areas lacking the appropriate features required by otters can be enhanced by implementing a range of measures that includes planting appropriate bankside trees, establishing patches of dense undisturbed scrub and creating ungrazed or uncultivated buffer zones alongside watercourses. In certain circumstances artificial holts that provide lying-up or breeding sites are a valuable additional element.

  • leave scrub areas undisturbed; ideal areas should be not less than 25 square metres 
  • retain traditionally-managed wet grasslands, grazing marshes, fens and reedbeds 
  • use low maintenance management policies for grassland, fen and scrub habitats 
  • re-create riparian habitats by reverting arable to wet grassland, fen and reedbed 
  • leave a buffer zone along river, stream and ditch banks uncut to provide a zone of tall, dense herbaceous cover. Protect banks from excessive poaching by livestock 
  • fence off and plant-up river or stream meanders (if not of existing conservation value) with scrub species including hawthorn, blackthorn, bramble and willow to provide cover 
  • retain mature trees on riverbanks, particularly oak, ash and sycamore as these form large root cavities. These provide cover for fish and potential holt/lying-up sites for otters 
  • retain structural features including ox-bow lakes, backwaters, ditches and ponds.

Otters and stillwater fisheries

There is the potential for otters to predate fish at stillwater fisheries and fish farms and there have been a number of recent incidents in Norfolk. Utilisation of stillwater fisheries by otters appears to be seasonal, being restricted to the late autumn-winter period. Large fish are targeted and in some cases losses, particularly of large carp, can be high. Where such losses are intolerable to site owners and users, measures need to be taken to prevent otters from gaining access to fish by the installation of appropriate fencing, whilst still allowing their free movement along any adjacent watercourses. Expert advice and guidance should be sought if predation of fish by otters is suspected.

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Key Contacts

  • For General Information

Contact the Environment Agency

  • For Legislation and Licensing Advice:

Natural England

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Key References

Anglian Otters & Rivers Project (2000) Fact sheet no.1: European Otter. Anglian Otters & Rivers Project.

Environment Agency (1999) Otters and River Habitat Management. Second edition. Bristol: Environment Agency.

Environment Agency (1999) Otter predation: is my fishery at risk? Bristol: Environment Agency.

Highways Agency (1999) Design Manual for Roads and Bridges. Volume 10 Environmental Design: Section 1 The Good Roads Guide – New Roads. Part 9 HA81/99 Nature conservation advice in relation to otters.

Lenton, E.J., Chanin, P.R.F. & Jefferies, D.J. (1980) Otter survey of England 1977-79. London: Nature Conservancy Council.

Strachan, R., Birks, J.D.S., Chanin, P.R.F. & Jefferies, D.J. (1990) Otter survey of England 1984-86. Peterborough: Nature Conservancy Council.

Strachan, R, & Jefferies, D.J. (1996) Otter Survey of England 1991-1994: a report on the decline and recovery of the otter in England and on its distribution, status and conservation in 1991-1994. London: The Vincent Wildlife Trust.

Yaxley, R. (1997a) Report of the Norfolk Otter, Mink and Water Vole Survey: a report by Norfolk Wildlife Trust to the Environment Agency (Anglian Region-Central Area).

Yaxley, R. (1997b) Report of the Norfolk Otter, Mink and Water Vole Survey: a report by Norfolk Wildlife Trust to the Environment Agency (Anglian Region-Eastern Area).


Anglian Otters & Rivers Project (2000b) Fact sheet no.3: Artificial otter holts. Anglian Otters & Rivers Project.

Anglian Otters & Rivers Project (2000c) Fact sheet no.4: Riparian trees & scrub. Anglian Otters & Rivers Project.

Anglian Otters & Rivers Project (2000d) Fact sheet no.5: Bays, backwaters & ponds. Anglian Otters & Rivers Project.

Anglian Otters & Rivers Project (2000e) Creating an otter haven. Anglian Otters & Rivers Project.

Anon (1996) Practical conservation tips: Fence off a meander. Farming & Conservation 3(2): 36.

Bradshaw, A.V. & Slater, F.M. (1999) Dead otters: Post-mortems and tissue analysis. R & D Project W1-019. R & D Technical Interim Report.

Chanin, P. (1993) Otters. London: Whittet Books.

Chanin, P.R.F. & Jefferies, D.J. (1978) The decline of the otter Lutra lutra in Britain: an analysis of hunting records and discussion of causes. Biological Journal Linnean Society 10: 305-328.

Clayton, C.J. & Jackson, M.J. (1981) Norfolk Otter Survey 1980-1981. Otters - The Journal of the Otter Trust 1980, 1(4): 16-22.

Driver, A. (1997) River and wetland rehabilitation in the Thames catchment. British Wildlife 8(6): 362-372.

Jefferies, D.J (1988) Otters crossing watersheds. Otters. The Journal of the Otter Trust 2(2): 17-19.

Jefferies, D. (1996) Decline and recovery of the otter – a personal account. British Wildlife 7: 353-364.

Jefferies, D.J., Wayre, P., Jessop, R.M. & Mitchell-Jones, A.J. (1986) Reinforcing the native otter Lutra lutra population in East Anglia: an analysis of the behaviour and range development of the first release group. Otters. The Journal of the Otter Trust 1(9): 65-79.

Joint Nature Conservation Committee (1996) A framework for otter conservation in the UK: 1995-2000. Peterborough: JNCC.

Macdonald, S.M. & Mason, C.F. (1976) The status of the otter in Norfolk. Biological Conservation 9: 119-124.

Masson, A. (1995) Otters in Norfolk and Suffolk. A review of the distribution data. Norfolk Wildlife Trust report to the National Rivers Authority.

Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust (1991) Otters (Lutra lutra) in East Anglia: past, present and future. Report of a conference held at University of East Anglia organised by Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust & RSNC – The Wildlife Trusts partnership.

Perrow, M.R. (1997) Status of the otter in Norfolk. Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report 1995, Transactions of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society 30(6): 743-744.

Philcox, C.K., Grogan, A.L. & Macdonald, D.W. (1999) Patterns of otter Lutra lutra road mortality in Britain. Journal of Applied Ecology 36: 748-762.

RSPB, NRA & RSNC (1994) The New Rivers and Wildlife Handbook. Sandy: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Thames Water & The Wildlife Trusts Otters & Rivers Project (undated) Guide for landowners. Thames Water & The Wildlife Trusts Otters & Rivers Project.

The Wildlife Trusts (1998) Splash Back! The Return of the Otter. Lincoln: The Wildlife Trusts.

Water UK and The Wildlife Trusts Otters and Rivers Project. Fact sheets: Action for otters, rivers and wetlands across the UK. Water UK and The Wildlife Trusts Otters and Rivers Project.

Water UK and The Wildlife Trusts Otters and Rivers Project (2001) Otters Return. A review of the Water UK and The Wildlife Trusts Otters and Rivers project 1998-2001. Newark: The Wildlife Trusts.

Woodroffe, G. (1995) Comeback for the otter. Farming & Conservation 2(1): 22-26.

Yaxley, R. (1998) Norfolk otter survey 1997. Norfolk Bird & Mammal Report 1997, Transactions of the Norfolk & Norwich Naturalists’ Society 31(4): 604-605. 

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