Otter spotting in Tiree

Today’s guest blog is from the Tiree Ranger, Hayley Douglas. Hayley works for Tiree Community Development Trust and took up the ranger post in November 2019 after working at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park as a ranger and project officer from 2010. At the park, she tracked otters and other mammals using camera traps, as well as lesser black-backed gulls using the latest satellite tagging techniques. She’s gone back to basics for her otter tracking on Tiree and loves sharing her skills.

Cheese Rock on Tiree – a spectacular view and a special place to spot otters. © Hayley Douglas

“There he is!” I yelped.  I was taking my first group of visitors out to look for otters here on Tiree. We had just arrived at the viewing spot as a sleek male with a fish popped onto Cheese Rock 15 metres in front of us. The extended family group of three generations were over the moon and everyone sat down quickly but quietly to enjoy our time with him. (I actually sat down so fast that I broke my camera so never got any otter pics myself).

I couldn’t believe my luck, as taking folk to see wildlife usually results in nothing being seen. I call it the KitKat panda effect – if you were around in the 90s then you know what I mean. But the lockdown had allowed me to spend time familiarising myself with Tiree in preparation for the visitor season starting. 

Previous visitor activities provided by the Ranger Service had focused on guided walks, and I was keen to offer a completely different programme of events to locals and visitors.  I had tracked otters on the mainland and followed a number with camera traps, but I’d only ever seen them in the flesh at that site once.

However, my explorations around Tiree showed that the situation here was completely different; in fact, it’s highly unusually if I come away from a walk without seeing some signs of an otter.  So, the plan started to hatch that I could start working on a survey of the island’s otters, as well as taking folk to see them.

On the search – otter footprints and other signs of their presence are common in Tiree.

Otters are on many visitors’ wish list, but no one had previously offered the opportunity to track and see them. But where was the best place – one which wasn’t too hard to access but quiet enough that our potential watching activities wouldn’t be disturbed by other visitors, in and out of the water? It was my crofter landlord that solved that problem.

He had an area that I had become familiar with during the lambing period that ticked all the boxes – but were there otters?  I headed out to explore. It wasn’t long before I found paw prints, spraints and runs through the grass. I wandered around the bay to find the best sites to watch from and eventually settled on the one in front of Cheese Rock. Here, when the tide drops, the rock becomes more exposed and a shallow channel appears between it and the shore. It was here that I saw the otter swimming as I watched from above. He once or twice looked in my direction, but didn’t seem too fussed. How would he behave if more folk were about though?

Well a few months later, I found out with that first walk. The otter wasn’t bothered at all and I spent most of the summer, when the tides were suitable, taking folk up to the site.  It’s fair to say that, after the third time we saw the otter, my time had been well spent reccing the area.  It had been a bleak year with the pandemic and seeing folks’ reactions to finally connecting with an otter more than made up for it.

We didn’t always see him but the hit rate was over 70 % and the majority of visitors who didn’t spot one went on to see one elsewhere on the island using the tracking skills I had taught them.  The last visit before restrictions came back in was a trip out with a solo visitor, and just as we were preparing to leave two otters appeared and gave us an hour of their time. 

I’ve kept an eye on the site over the winter and still see the otter there, an experience that still hasn’t lost its magic with me. Today is a wet and windy day here on Tiree with the mainland being in lockdown and no idea when visitors will be allowed back. When they are though, the otter walks will be back on, as connecting with nature is something we definitely all need.

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