2019 is going to be described by me and many others who keep an eye on the wildlife of the area, as the Year of the Otter. Not only were there more sightings, but in one magical period between November and mid December almost daily sightings in daylight, both along the river Gowy at Hockenhull and at Walk Mill. I suppose, looking back, that these sightings occurred when the river was really very flooded. This flooding occurred more times this year than any of us can remember, with water being seen even under all three arches at the Roman Bridges on several occasions. We have previously captured the presence of the otters on the river with night vision cameras, and there have always been daily signs of spraints, and lumps of jelly on stonework around the bridges, but we have never experienced anything like the joy of so many live sightings. Sometimes the dog otter would be present on his own, the female with cubs/pups, and on one magic occasion for me three cubs/pups swimming towards the camera oblivious of my presence on the river bank. I am grateful to Joe O’Hanlon for allowing me to use some of his pictures to illustrate this article, but we also know that other photographers have captured the excitement of otters at Walk Mill, again in the daylight, on the river bank and in the Mill Pond. We have also found otter-slides where they access the river through vegetation and these occur in several places along the river bank. We are almost sure that they are still using the artificial otter holt built in the 1990’s on the big meadow as they have been captured on camera nearby, with regular footprints being seen in mud leading to the holt. They have also been seen coming from the new Hockenhull Lake back onto the river at this point.
Otters are becoming very common on English rivers again after many years absence, and are probably driving out the vicious American mink that were illegally released and which escaped from mink farms in the 1980’s. Otters have their young in this area in May - June and the cubs usually stay with the females for at least a year. The male is often seen singly and probably operates across a wider area. Otters can live between 15 -20 years and tend to stay in the same locality, although they are known to wander good distances in search of food. For several years we found that it was in March that provided us with the best evidence of the otters being present, and this co-incided with the arrival of the eels going up river to spawn. These eels make an annual migration from the sea, along the Mersey to Stanlow Marshes and then follow the Gowy to their traditional breeding grounds at Peckforton.
The colourful shoveler ducks are back on Littleheath Pit again this winter, with sometimes up to twelve being seen. The males are the most obvious duck to identify with bright colours and large shovel like beak, but pairs can regularly be seen swimming in circles around each other. This extraordinary behaviour is something not seen in any other species of duck. Another interesting sighting for me was the appearance of a great crested grebe on the river at the Groves on Boxing Day. I don’t remember ever seeing one there before.