Otter (Lutra lutra)

These inquisitive and playful animals are always a joy to watch and, with a bit of patience, there are plenty of inland waterways and coastal sites across Scotland where you might see them. For a good chance to see wild otters, we recommend heading to Kylerhea otter hide on Skye.

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Where do they live?

Otters live along the seashore and on the banks of rivers, lochs and burns. They’re about the size of a small dog, and have a distinctive lolloping run. They tend to be elusive, but you might spot one swimming or hear them calling to each other in high pitched squeaks or chattering angrily if threatened.

They’re excellent swimmers, with webbed feet and a thick tail they use as a rudder. They can also close off their eyes and nostrils underwater. Their thick fur is warm and waterproof – although otters that swim in the sea need to look after their coat by regularly rinsing off the salt in freshwater pools or streams.

Otters spend much of their time in the water but sleep and breed in burrows, holes and caves known as holts. To ensure there are plenty of places for otters to establish their territories and find suitable holts, we regularly remove dense and overgrown vegetation from riverbanks and along the shoreline.

What do they eat?

Otters mainly eat crabs and small fish but they’ll snack on almost anything that is easy to catch, including frogs, toads, larger fish, waterbirds and voles. They use their long sensitive whiskers to help detect prey moving underwater.

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When is the best time to see them?

You can see otters all year round. You’ll always need to be patient, as they are wary and easily disturbed.

Watch out at dawn and dusk for otters that live in freshwater lochs and rivers. They tend to be nocturnal and range across large areas – up to 20 miles (30km) – in search of food. By contrast, coastal otters are often active during the day and don’t range very far because of the plentiful supply of seafood.

Where might you see them?

Otters live along many of Scotland’s waterways, but head for the west coast and the islands for the best chance of spotting them.

Choose Kylerhea otter hide near Broadford on the Isle of Skye for a stunning vantage point over the Kylerhea narrows, where otters are often seen frolicking along the shoreline. Enjoy fantastic views across to Glenelg and the Kintail mountains from the hide, where you’re also likely to see grey and common seals, a host of seabirds and occasionally a passing pod of dolphins.

On the wooded shores of Loch Sunart, the beautifully located Garbh Eilean wildlife hide is another good otter spotting place. Sit quietly and you might see otters as well as basking seals, seabirds and, in summer, ospreys and sea eagles fishing.

Watch out for otters, red deer, golden eagles and sea eagles along the wonderful coastal and woodland trails on the Isle of Mull and the Knapdale peninsula. There are also regular otter sightings along the wooded shores of Loch Lomond and at Culbin on the Morayshire coast. If you can’t find the real thing, visit the friendly carved stone otter at the Otter Pool car park on the Raiders’ Road Forest Drive in Galloway Forest Park.

Fast facts

  • Where? Found in rivers, lochs and along the shores across Scotland, but most likely to be seen on the west coast and islands.
  • When? All year round. Coastal otters are more active during the daytime than those living beside inland rivers and lochs.
  • Size? About the size of a small dog – around 3 feet (1 metre) long including their tails. Often confused with the American mink, but otters are much larger and more powerful, with lighter brown fur and wider snouts.
  • Look out for On land, look for five-toed footprints in waterside mud or sand, and spraint (droppings) full of fish bones and crab shells left in prominent places. Despite the fishy contents, otter spraint smells sweet, rather like hay.

In the water, spot the otter’s distinctive V-shaped wake as they swim on the surface or a long chain of bubbles as they breathe out slowly underwater.