Meeting Report: A Life with Otters

Date: 
18 March 2011
Speaker(s): 
Rosemary Green

Rosemary Green and her husband are internationally recognized for their important contributions to the study of otters in the wild. She gave an enthralling lecture to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society on the subject of A Life With Otters.

She was born on a farm in Essex and lived an idyllic rural life with parents who fostered her interest in wildlife. At sixteen, she joined the Essex Field Club and met Jim, her future husband, and some life-long friends in the natural history field. University followed and then a spell of teaching in a technical college, during which time her husband completed a Ph.D. in the study of otters. They were then employed by the Vincent Wildlife Trust to carry out the first national survey of otters in Scotland — otter numbers had been declining, an observation first made paradoxically by Otter Hunts.

This survey became the standard by which other European national surveys were judged. It covered 4,636 sites all over Scotland and took two years of travel (by campervan) and many walks across often remote and daunting terrain. After this first survey of Scotland, Rosemary and her husband from 1980 onwards worked with newly formed otter groups on the continent; they carried out a preliminary survey in western France; and trained surveyors from several countries. Close contacts with continental colleagues have been maintained. The Scottish national surveys were repeated every seven years, with Rosemary and her husband doing the second in 1986–7 and the third in 1992–4.

Between surveys, they worked on the first successful otter radio-tracking programme. This was a shoe-string affair with only the two of them making the transmitter packs, catching the otters and undertaking a gruelling schedule to track the otters. A radio-isotope study was carried out at the same time, providing a back-up method of tracking the otters’ movements. Radio-tracking was also used in 1989–1991 to study the impact of marine fish-farming on otters on the west coast.

As otters increased in range and population density, it became apparent that there was need for a facility to rehabilitate orphan and injured otters. As Rosemary and her husband already had licences to trap and relocate otters causing damage at fish farms, it was considered that they were best placed to undertake this work. From 1985 to 1999, they took in and cared for 143 otters, most of whom were rehabilitated and released back into the wild. When this work started, they were living in Perthshire but, needing more space for a growing number of otters, they bought a farm on the Cree in 1987 and set up a programme to assist the return of otters in England. Other work on the captive otters has included behavioural studies, establishing normal biological parameters in healthy animals and other veterinary research.

Increasingly, work has been devoted to trying to mitigate the impact of engineering and other human activities on otter populations and studying those impacts. Currently, Rosemary is working on otter road mortality and trying to understand where and why otters are killed by traffic.

The lecture was delivered throughout in a lucid, informative sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant manner, accompanied with often dramatic slides, but always with a deep understanding of her subject. The members of the Society showed their appreciation by prolonged applause at the end.