Saturday, May 14, 2016

Otters in Shetland - Richard Shucksmith & Brydon Thomason

When I was growing up in Shetland in the '80's I was the sort of child who was fascinated by nature, keen on birdwatching, and a little bit obsessed by otters. Back then the otter population was still recovering from the depredations that generations of trappers had made on their numbers. Seeing them wasn't exactly unusual, but it was still something of an event. The more so because although it would have been illegal to hunt or kill them by then they weren't universally popular. We had a neighbour who would skin the occasional animal bought to him (roadkill) and he let us watch (which is the sort of revolting thing children enjoy) so I saw first hand the stray pellets of shot buried beneath the skin that showed there were still those prepared to take a pot shot at them.

Those days are long past, Shetland has the highest density of otters in Europe, and I can pretty much guarantee that any visitor who keeps an eye out will see one. On a visit home a couple of years ago I was looking out the sitting room window at the pond in the garden when I realised there was one in there (playing with some plastic ducks) I would have had some photos if invading sheep hadn't caused a big enough disturbance to scare off a far less wary animal than an otter. Apart from in my dad's garden they're also a reasonably common sight around some of the ferry terminals, and have been spotted wandering through Lerwick (the main town).

It's not just the density of the otter population that makes Shetland such a great place to spot them, but also its geography. You're never very far from water, fresh or salt (otters need to wash in fresh water so ponds near the sea - like dads - are not a strange place to see them) so generally it's enough to just keep an eye out.

'Otters in Shetland' is a beautiful book - almost as good as having an actual otter in front of you, or if not quite that good, at least it's teaching me so much more than I knew before. It takes a comprehensive view of the habitat and diet of the Shetland otter before exploring all aspects of their life and habits. We get to see them at their cutest - snuggling up in family groups, but also as the efficient predators they are; a useful reminder not to anthropomorphise these creatures to much. They're charismatic animals with a definite presence when you see one close up, but they're also at the top of their food chain and not to be argued with.

Bryson Thomason and Richard Shucksmith both lead photographic tours of Shetlands wildlife (if you're planning a visit and don't want to leave otter spotting to chance these would be the men to speak to). They clearly know the landscape and its inhabitants intimately and that really comes across. In truth this is a niche interest book, it's published by the Shetland Times, and whilst it's available via Amazon as well as through the Shetland Times Bookshop, Waterstones don't stock it in their warehouse (though they will order it). The chances are that it will be bought mainly by people in or visiting Shetland, but for anyone with an interest in otters it's worth a look. There are some remarkable images, good advice about otter spotting, and it's a timely updating of the ongoing story of the otter and our relationship with it in Shetland and beyond.


  1. Thanks for this post. I am ordering the book.
    I love Otters but have only seen them off the coast of California (I lived in NY then, now in Virginia). They are amazing creatures.
    I am envious of your childhood in Shetland, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

  2. As someone who hopes to visit Shetland one day and, having been a fan of otters since reading Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water years ago, I'd like to thank you for this review. I will be sure to read this book before visiting the island. Back in the 80s I lived up north, in a village on the Moray Coast, and remember well getting into a rather heated argument with a salmon farmer over the rights of otters. It's hard to be impartial when discussing these charming creatures. Elizabeth xx