Otters are making a comeback in our rivers. An exhibition of new paintings by Yorkshire Wolds wildlife artist Robert Fuller celebrates their return. Lara Lambert reports

There was a time when to see an otter in the wild was a rare treat. Now, thanks to a handful of committed conservationists, they can be spotted along waterways across Yorkshire and the rest of Britain. Almost wiped out by hunters, pesticides and a dwindling food supply, otters had all but disappeared from our rivers by the 1960s.

The fightback began in the 1970s when laws were introduced to ban the sport of otter hunting and prohibit harmful agricultural pesticides which was killing both otters and the fish they lived on.

The clean-up led to increased stocks of the fish otters need to survive, mainly native species such as salmon, trout and eel.

Now, for the first time in a generation, there are otters on every English river.

In Yorkshire, their comeback is owed to a programme run by a just few committed conservationists to release captive-bred otters into the wild.

Environmentalists working for the Vincent Wildlife Trust released 25 otters on the rivers Derwent and Esk between 1990 and 1993.

The continuing survival of these otters depended on a massive undertaking by the Environment Agency and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to clean up the county’s waterways.

The project was so successful that the descendants of the original 25 otters now form only a tiny proportion of the otter population in the county.

The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) is continuing to make otter survival a focus and is implementing an ambitious project to plant areas of wet woodland and grass to restrict mud running off arable fields into rivers.

According to John Traill, who is working on the project along the River Hull, fish and eels are unable to spawn on silted riverbeds.

“Fish and eels rely on a gravel bed to spawn, so we need to keep the rivers clean,” he said.

The trust also liaises with anglers and fish farms – traditionally the otter’s greatest rival – offering advice on how protect their stock from otters.

Some anglers have even begun to help in the conservation effort. One fisherman in Driffield has conducted his own research into otter diets to see how it affects fishing stock.

After analysing otter droppings, the angler discovered that the otters he studied mainly fed on bullheads and were therefore not in direct competition with anglers.

The YWT hopes that by improving stocks of eels, which otters prefer above all other fish, throughout Yorkshire’s rivers, it will further reduce the conflict between otters and anglers.

Surprisingly, there are no official otter population figures and counts of them are based on the presence or absence of their footprints and droppings, or spraints.

This is because otters are largely nocturnal and very secretive. They also have very large territories, sometimes up to 12 miles wide.

But the evidence from droppings and other indicators such as reported sightings and even the number of otters killed on our roads is clear, Mr Traill said. The numbers are increasing, in rivers such as the Ouse, Ure, Swale and the Hull.

An exhibition by Yorshire Wolds wildlife artist Robert E Fuller is celebrating their remarkable comeback.

He said: “Whether you love them or hate them, and many anglers have mixed feelings about them, the fact that otters are now back deserves to be celebrated.

“Otters are a barometer of the health of our waterways. They are at the top of the food chain, so you know that if they are present, then other wildlife is also thriving.”

• Robber Fuller’s series of new paintings celebrating the comeback of otters are being exhibited at his gallery near Thixendale until November 18.

The show will be accompanied by riverbank walks on Sunday, November 11 (leaving from the Trout Inn at Wansford, near Driffield, at 10am) and November 17 (leaving from High Top Low, near Driffield, at 10am) to look for otters. Walks must be pre-booked and cost £10. Phone 01759 368 355 to check availability.