A POLICE investigation has been launched after a family of otters were found dead in an illegal trap in a Scottish river.
A female otter and her two cubs were discovered by a member of the public in a net creel in the River Tyne in East Lothian.
It’s believed the three animals may have drowned after becoming trapped in the device, which may have been intended to catch eels or crayfish.
The European otter is protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and is listed as a priority species for conservation under the Biodiversity Action Plan.
The cubs were estimated to be nearly 12 months old.
Wildlife crime officer PC Gavin Ross said: “Examination of the otters confirms that they were an adult female and two young, and it appears they became trapped within the net and were unable to escape.
“Using a net trap for catching eels and crayfish is illegal and we would urge members of the public who remember seeing anyone fishing in this manner to contact police immediately.
“The death of these animals will be of great distress to many members of the local community, particularly as their return to our rivers is an environmental success story.
“Anyone who has information relevant to our ongoing investigation should contact police immediately.”
Otters are from the family of carnivores that includes badgers, pine martens, stoats and weasels.
The semi-aquatic creatures feed largely on fish, particularly trout, salmon and eels, but will also eat frogs and toads, small mammals and birds.
Scottish otters can be divided into two ecologically distinct types - riverine, which are widely distributed across the country, and coastal, which live mainly along the west and north coasts, in the Hebrides and Shetland.
In freshwater habitats they are usually nocturnal and have very low population densities, with the home range for an adult between 20km and 32km.
They have a fairly short life-expectancy, usually reaching only three to four years of age.
Offspring can be born at any time of the year and stay with their mother for the first year.
This means the death of a mother may also lead to the loss of her cubs, which can cause impact on the population as a whole.
Road kill and other human activities are the main threats affecting Scotland’s otter population, though eel fishing and creeling for crustaceans are problems in some areas.
The species is listed as near-threatened internationally, but numbers in Britain and much of Europe have begun to bounce back as a result of conservation measures and the banning of certain pesticides.
Fergus MacNeill, from the government nature agency Scottish Natural heritage, said: “Otters are an important part of our native biodiversity and are recovering in south-east Scotland.
“That makes this kind of reported incident all the more distressing.”
Freshwater crayfish and European eels are also protected by law, with trappers facing fines of up to £5,000 or six months in prison for catching them.
The same penalties could also be imposed for each dead otter.