WILDLIFE expert and TV presenter Chris Packham has put his weight behind a campaign to stop a five lane road bridge being built over an otter habitat on the river Lune.
Campaigners in Halton have produced evidence that up to 14 otters, which are a protected species under European law, are living, breeding and fishing on a stretch of the river near the current motorway bridge.
Plans for the new bridge as part of the Heysham M6 Link would see part a 200m stretch of woodland 80m west of the motorway being pulled down and built over.
Lancashire County Council conducted a survey which found no evidence of otters in the area, but an independent survey, and an increasing number of photographs taken by local people, have contradicted the county council’s results.
Halton resident and former businessman John Wilding has a family of otters that frequent the boathouse beneath his sitting room floor.
For three years John has recorded in detail the comings and goings of these highly secretive animals including the birth of cubs and the catching of huge fish.
John, who lives at The Boat House, formerly part of Halton Hall, has remote controlled cameras filming continuously and has hours of footage recorded.
On a recent visit to John’s unique and beautiful home, where he has lived for 35 years, I saw first hand that the river has a permanent and growing otter population.
I saw otters play fighting and rolling around with eachother, and climbing on the small boat moored in the boathouse.
For 10 years John has witnessed the otter population grow, but has remained quiet about it, determined to protect the animals in their natural habitat.
But the plans for the bridge mean John is now prepared to speak out about them, hoping, in effect, to save them.
John said the otters rely on the woodland for resting places, and for escaping the water at high tide.
The former owner of Th’owd Tithebarn in Garstang said he opposed the road in general, but even if he supported it, he would not want to see this unique habitat destroyed.
“Lancashire County Council should be very proud to have this here but instead we’re being completely ignored,” he said.
“The otters have been here for 10 years, and over that period there’s been an explosion in their population, particularly in the last three years.
“I keep a log of everything, dating back to March 12 2010, and I recorded two cubs at around 12 weeks old on May 29 this year, but there have been lots of other individuals coming in and out.
“This is certainly a nationally significant site.
“The numbers are extraordinary, it’s unique in the country.
“It’s extremely important that we retain this habitat and it musn’t be disturbed at all costs.”
The county council said that two new otter holts on either side of the river would be constructed once engineering work finished, but campaigners say this is far from adequate.
Otters are protected under the Habitats Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in England.
A licence from Natural England is required when any activity could kill, injure or disturb otters or obstruct, damage or destroy their resting or breeding sites.
Steve McCreesh, Lancashire County Council’s project director for the Heysham M6 Link Road said: “We’ve always acknowledged the presence of otters on the river, we’ve never denied that they are there, and that therefore means we have to do further surveys before any work on site can begin.
“If the otters are established then we would have to apply for a licence and work with Natural England and the Environment Agency to ensure that no harm comes to the otters.
“The council does take its commitment to biodiversity seriously and the link road does provide a net gain in biodiversity with all the new habitat creation areas it will bring.”
John said he was resolute about protecting the animals he has fallen in love with over the last decade.
“The county council has got so far ahead with this road, I think this is a big shock to them,” he said.
“They just want to go boom with that road, to hell with us and to hell with the otters.”
He added: “We will take it to court first and then see what happends from there and then we would seek a Judicial Review even if the inspector says yes to the road.
“We’ll take it to Europe if we have to. We’ve been ignored for too long.”
Chris Packham, who presents Autumnwatch on the BBC, said: “This sounds like a very good example of concerned local conservationists essentially empowering themselves to protect these wonderful animals.
“I salute them and wish them the very best of success.
“It is critical that every such case is democratically but ferociously fought to the benefit of our battered and beleaguered wildlife.
“Otters are extremely vulnerable to becoming road casualties, indeed this is hampering the recovery of the former ranges and repopulation.”
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