ONE of Scotland's shyest mammals - the otter - was caught in the crossfire yesterday as the conflict between wild Atlantic salmon anglers and fish-farm companies escalated.
Officials of the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards in Scotland were furious at the escape of an estimated 30,000 young rainbow trout from a fish farm into Loch Earn in Perthshire after otters managed to make 20 holes in the nets surrounding cages at the site.
They said it was "farcical" that the cages at the fish farm were not robust enough to prevent such an attack.
The row erupted after the Scottish Executive's rural affairs department sent out an alert to fishing interests, informing them about the escape from Drummond Fish Farm, operated by Scottrout Farming, one of the country's leading farmed trout companies.
It said the "otter" holes - each between 30cm and 100cm in circumference - had been found between two and five metres under the surface. The escape happened on 28 July but wild fish interests were not notified until 9 August.
Andrew Wallace, the director of the salmon fishery boards group, said the report "should be a source of acute embarrassment to the Scottish freshwater fish farming industry".
He went on: "Rainbow trout farmers have a long-standing record of extremely poor containment, with repeated and significant escapes over many years in many of our most important wild fish systems.
"These companies and those who regulate their activities now have two clear options - relocate their activities to land-based sites where containment can be managed properly or relocate to bodies of water where there is no significant fisheries interest. Whichever, wild fisheries organisations will not tolerate this sort of poor practice any longer."
Mr Wallace added: "The cause of this escape is reported to be otters - animals which have been known to inhabit Scotland's freshwater and which may even be known by some to be partial to the occasional trout. It is farcical that the Loch Earn fish cages are not robust enough to prevent damage by a modestly-sized, ubiquitous British mammal."
Dr David Summers, manager of the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, said:
"This is the third escape of rainbow trout in the Tay district recently, the others being in the River Almond and in Loch Tay. Who knows what damage this influx of ravenous, alien fish will do to Loch Earn and its native stocks of trout, salmon and char. It is high time the fish-farming industry got a grip and eliminated this sloppy husbandry."
A spokesman for the salmon fishery boards association said: "Rainbow trout - which are alien to Britain - do tremendous harm to the natural ecology of lochs and rivers, not least by preying on juvenile salmon and trout, as well as competing with our indigenous fish for food and habitat."
A Scottrout spokesman said: "We can confirm that 30,000 small, 20g rainbow trout fingerlings escaped from a cage at the farm due to a massive attack on the cage by otters. Once the holes were seen, they were immediately repaired and Scottish Executive informed via the correct procedures."