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This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 852 published on 13 May 1978.
Fishermen, who sit patiently by the side of a stream with their bait and rods, have an unseen rival. This is the otter, which paddles away out of sight below the surface of the water, helping itself to a lot of the fish the angler would love to catch.
Salmon, trout, eels and other fishes we use as food are liked by the otter, which kills more than it can eat. After tasting each fish by biting a piece out of its back, the otter leaves it on the bank of the stream and hurries off after another.
Otters belong to the weasel family. They differ from their relatives by being water creatures. With the exception of the mink, which loves to swim in lakes and rivers, the other animals of the weasel family are all land animals.
There are several kinds of otters living in warm and temperate countries. The European otter, found throughout Europe and Northern Asia, is still fairly common in many parts of Great Britain.
It is rather a large animal, measuring about a metre or so from its nose to the tip of its tail.
When swimming in the water, the otter might easily be mistaken for a seal, for it looks very much like one. But when it climbs out on the bank, we see that it has legs, not flippers. Its short feet have webs between the toes and are as good as fins.
The tail, which is broad and flat at the tip, makes an excellent rudder.
In the water, the otter swims, dives, twists and turns as easily as a fish. But it does not breathe like a fish. Although it can stay under water for several minutes at a time, it has to come up to the surface when the air in its lungs is exhausted.
An otter is a lively animal. It chases fish up and down a stream, darts after water rats and catches wild ducks by approaching them under water and seizing them from below.
But the otter does not spend all its time in the water. When the streams are low and the fishing is bad, it will sometimes travel overland from one stream to another, covering the ground with a loping gallop at a great speed, in spite of its short legs.
In winter, it often takes long journeys inland in search of food, and will somtimes raid farmyards and kill fowls and ducks.
In Canada and the most northern states of the USA, the otter will flounder about in the snow, sliding down the slopes in the hope of finding something to eat.
When the streams are frozen over, it will hunt beneath the ice, if it can find a hole through which it can wriggle to get into the water.
Young otters stay with their parents for at least a year, and sometimes longer. They make their home in a hole in the bank of a stream or in a dugout among the roots of some old trees not far from the water’s edge.
Unless they are disturbed by the hounds of an otter hunt, otters stay in their home until the sun is almost setting. Then they emerge and begin their nightly activities.
If their den happens to be at the top of a steep, sloping bank, the otters slide down the slope one after another and splash into the water.
Young otters and old ones, too, seem to enjoy this. They also like free-for-all rough-and-tumbles. The ground all round their den is nearly always trampled down from the games they play together. The young ones roll over and over like puppies, clawing up grass and flinging it all over the place.
At first, baby otters are afraid of the water. Their mother has to push them in when she is taking them to the water for the first time. But they soon overcome this fear and join the adult otters on fishing expeditions.
They do not return every morning to their old home, but they just slip into any suitable hole they can find under the banks by the side of the water.
There they go to sleep until the sun goes down and another night of hunting, eating and playing begins.