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University research discovers wild Otters at Tophill Low nature reserve

A two year study by zoology students from the University of Hull using state-of-the-art technology and DNA analysis has revealed the presence of three wild otters living at Tophill Low nature reserve.

The nature reserve, located in the River Hull catchment near Driffield, is one of the best breeding grounds for Otters thanks to its clean waters and thriving trout and lamprey fish numbers. However, otters are far from easy to find due to their elusive nature.

To identify them, Hull University zoology student Stefan Rooke analysed visitor photographs taken at the popular nature reserve and images captured on hidden cameras set up. After compiling all the evidence it was discovered there are three otters living at the nature reserve – two females and a one-eyed male.

Fellow student Zoe Latham undertook further survey work which revealed the male otter hunting water birds at night from the reservoirs located on the nature reserve. And camera footage showed the otters eating tufted ducks, coots, black headed gulls and even a herring gull which has a five-foot wing span.

National otter surveys taken between 1950 and 1980 found that that they were on the brink of extinction, with 97% lost from English rivers.

However, since then water quality has vastly improved in recent decades with efforts made to prevent pesticides seeping into water courses, which has boosted the fish population and in turn otter numbers.

Tophill Low nature reserve, owned by Yorkshire Water, is a safe haven for wild otters and efforts have been made by its local volunteer force to build artificial holts for the animals.

Richard Hampshire, Yorkshire Water’s Reserve Warden at Tophill Low Nature Reserve said: “For our photographers the otter is a charismatic, iconic species and much sought after. It’s a great asset for the region and helps with the developing nature tourism economy in East Yorkshire as people travel to what’s recognised as one of the best places to see the animal in lowland Britain.”

The decline of otters was closely linked to the introduction of certain pesticides – such as dieldrin – that were used in agricultural seed dressings, and sheep dips. When first used these chemicals were applied in very high doses and caused large-scale mortalities among many animals, including otters.

Since these pesticides were withdrawn from use, along with advancements made in waste water treatment processes by Yorkshire Water, this has enabled otters to once again thrive.

The University of Hull offers undergraduate courses in BSc Zoology, BSc Biology and Bsc Ecology and Environment. Students can opt to conduct an extended research project on otters or other animals (e.g. on penguins at The Deep) as part of their final year studies. For more information on undergraduate courses visit

Tophill Low nature reserve is offering a series of guided Otter walks this summer. To find out more visit the Tophill Low blog.

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