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Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - South: Friday February 2, 2007
Otter photo gallery
Otter c/o PA Images
"I love the smell of otter in the morning..."
Chris Packham
On the trail of the elusive Otter. Photo - PA Images.

Otters

Otters are elusive creatures that are hard to spot even if you're an expert.

You can sit for hours waiting patiently for these shy animals to emerge, and it's even harder to see one during daylight hours.

There's relatively few of these remarkable creatures in Hampshire so Inside Out's Chris Packham set out to track some down.

He also discovered how scientists are using DNA fingerprinting to discover how Otters are returning to our rivers.

Hunting for Otter poo

It's hard to spot an Otter - so conservationists have come up with a great way of tracking the animals using spraint or poo.

Every spraint contains the animal's unique DNA code.

In the same way that DNA fingerprinting identifies criminals, Otters can now be tracked even if they can't be seen.

Volunteers from the Hampshire Wildlife Trust have been collecting samples of Otter spraint - scientists need a lot of samples if they're going to find enough information.

Searching for Otter spraint
Searching for Otter spraint to track these elusive animals

Graham Roberts from Hampshire Wildlife Trust explains the importance of getting up early to track the Otters:

"If we don't get here early, the actual droppings or spraint deteriorate.

"The minute it starts warming up, the bacteria in the Otter poo basically destroys the DNA so it's really important to get here early."

The spraint contains traces of everything the Otter has eaten.

As well as its DNA, there's the DNA of all the Otter's food.

All of this information gives valuable clues to where the Otters live and what their habits are.

The urban visitor

Otters don't just live in remote habitats - they also pass through urban areas on their way to estuaries and other waterways.

At Winchester City Mill the Otters have found a way to avoid humans - they just travel straight under the Mill itself.

Using an infra red camera, we stake out the Mill to film the Otters.

Otter route
This tunnel under a road is an Otter route, a wildlife corridor

It would have been the first time anyone had ever seen them in person there.

We weren't lucky that night, but wildlife volunteers father and son, Chris and Robin D'Arcy, have managed to catch them on a remote camera in the past.

DNA evidence suggests that Otters can travel large distances and that new animals are coming into Hampshire to breed, which should ensure that our tiny population survives.

The Environment Agency is funding the work in the hope of uncovering more secrets about these animals

It is also paying to protect some businesses from Otters - commercial fishing lakes are rather like free supermarkets to these creatures.

Protective fencing for those areas is becoming essential, another sign that our Otters are back.

Rescued Otters

The New Forest Otter Centre is a haven for rescued otters - new arrivals turn up regularly because of the increase in the wild population.

Some of the Otters at the centre are too used to humans to be released, but others remain fiercely independent and can be let back into the wilds.

The DNA studies suggest there may still only be four adult otters in Hampshire, so rescue centres like this are crucial in keeping the Otter population healthy.

But it's going to be sometime before we can tell whether Hampshire's Otter population is increasing dramatically.

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