Where, when and how to spot an otter in the wild

Otters can live in most places where there is a rocky shoreline and nearby freshwater, but these tips collated by Joe Gibb – with the help of otter aficionado Roger Cottis – will help give you the greatest chance of spotting an otter in the wild.

Books such as Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter and Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water have inspired people to seek out and watch otters for generations.

Among them are writers and naturalists such as Miriam Darlington, author of Otter Country, Sir John Lister-Kaye, whose White Island describes working with Maxwell during his last years, and Mike Tomkies, who became ‘wilderness man’ after finding a battered copy of Ring on a Canadian rubbish dump.

Today, the Highland west coast is a wonderful place to otter watch. The population here has thrived, cars being their only real threat; in Skye, for example, numbers are at capacity and they’ve reduced their breeding cycle to every other year. That means seeing an otter should be perfectly possible – especially if you follow these tips:

Where to look for otters

In the heavily indented coastal areas of the West Highlands seaweeds are present and freshwater is readily available in the forms of rivers and coastal pools – these make very suitable sites for holts.

At Kyle harbour, otters regularly board the moored fishing boats and rifle through the boxes to find their favourite monkfish. Rod fishermen preserve a friendly rivalry with them – there are tales of fish being filleted on the bank behind their backs.

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The Isle of Skye and the immediate mainland are the areas that Gavin Maxwell’s writing made famous, and in particular the coast around Glenelg where he lived. Visit the Kylerhea Otter Hide for a great chance to see an otter.

The Isle of Mull’s beautiful Calgary Bay in the north-west and Salen Bay are good viewing points.

Loch Sunart on either side of the loch, including Ardnatang Bay, are well known for otter sightings.

Otters have also been seen all around the wild coast of Ardnamurchan, but particularly Kilchoan at the western extremity.

Look up as well as around

Keep an eye out in the skies for clues as to the otters whereabouts: hoodie crows sometimes work as a pair to hustle a young otter, with one diverting his attention by tweaking his tail as the other pinches his fish supper.

In Norway, white-tailed eagles build their eyries near holts, swooping in on a big catch and frightening the fisherman away, and there are signs of Scottish white-tailed eagles adopting a similar ploy.

Caution, Otters Crossing – on the island of Scalpay, Harris, Outer Hebrides

When to look for otters

Time of day – and time of day relative to the tide – is crucial. The best time to see otters fishing is on a receding tide when most fish are forced to move; on shore, they turn over boulders and hunt in seaweed to find stranded blennies and the crabs that sustain them in winter.

And if you get lucky, what you might see otters catch and eat

Their carnivorous diet is wide-ranging – Roger Cottis once watched an otter drag a conger eel from the sea and devour every inch of it, and if they had the choice, otters would probably dine exclusively on these highly nutritious delicacies. The increasing rarity of this prey has meant they feed on the butterfish, blennies, sea scorpions and lumpsuckers in West Highland waters.

European river otter (Lutra lutra) female bringing octopus ashore for cub, Shetland, Scotland

An otter (Lutra lutra) bringing octopus ashore for cub, Shetland, Scotland

In freshwater, they feed on trout and salmon, but if you walk up a burn in spring, you may find a trail of frog skins turned inside out.

When driven to it, the otter’s diet can include sea birds. Otter spott Roger Cottis has seen an otter kill a floating black guillemot, ambushing it from under the water, and a cormorant competing for a fish met an untimely end, too. In an inland holt, he once found a dead merlin, presumably taken off its nest.