information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Eurasian river otter (Lutra lutra)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.
Only coastal and marine records shown



The Eurasian river otter is a member of the weasel family with a long lithe body, short legs and a thick tail. Its streamlined shape and webbed feet make it an agile swimmer. The amphibious lifestyle of the otter is aided by its ability to close its small ears and nose and a thick coat of short fur, which insulates the animal by trapping a layer of air. The coat is predominantly brown, with a paler underside. Adults can reach up to 1.1 m in length weighing 7 – 12 kg. They are considered shy and elusive animals, however, their playful side is revealed through games of catch with pebbles.  The Eurasian river otter requires access to water for feeding where it can be seen swimming low in the water with only the ears, eyes and nose visible above the surface. They also need terrestrial areas for resting and breeding. Therefore, they can be found in a variety of semi-aquatic habitats from lakes and rivers to estuaries and salt marshes.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

The Eurasian river otter has been recorded all over the UK, with most of the population residing in Scotland. Particularly important otter habitats are the coasts and islands of western Scotland and Shetland. 

Global distribution

The Eurasian river otter is widely distributed, spanning three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. In Europe, its distribution stretches from central Denmark in the west, via west Germany, the Netherlands, western France to Spain.  It is also recorded from most of Scandinavia and southern Italy. However, it is extinct or reduced to isolated subpopulations in a corridor stretching from central Denmark, via the western parts of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the eastern parts of France, Switzerland, the western parts of Austria to central Italy. Russia bridges the gap between Europe and Asia, with otter populations observed in most of the country excluding the tundra and areas of permafrost in the North. It is also found from the Near and Middle East into South Asia, where otters are reported in almost all countries particularly the Himalayan river systems. Its range extends east through South-East Asia ending before Japan where it is likely extinct.  In Africa, the Eurasian River Otter population spans Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.


Eurasian river otters are found near lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters in home ranges that extend over tens of kilometres. Coastal populations are observed feeding in the shallows, where they hunt primarily for fish. However, these colonies are never fully marine as the otters require fresh water for grooming salt from the fur and terrestrial habitats for breeding and resting.  During the day the otters reside in holts (underground dens) that can be dug into tree root systems and river banks, while those on the coast may be sheltered by piles of boulders.

Depth range

Terrestrial, Intertidal and Subtidal

Identifying features

  • A brown coat of fur, often paler on the underside.
  • Up to 1.1 m long.
  • Body shape is long and slender, with short legs and a thick tail.
  • Small eyes and nose.
  • Webbed feet.

Additional information

The Eurasian river otter is a solitary animal, with adults only tending to associate with one another for reproduction. If a small number of otters are observed together, the group will typically comprise an adult female with cub(s). A mother will feed a cub until approximately 4 months old, but the cub may remain associated with the mother for up to 12 months.

The Eurasian river otter suffered a rapid decline in the 1950s caused the effective loss of most of the English population by 1980, whilst in Scotland, the population experienced only a small decline. Since then, evidence suggests a recovering population in all parts of the UK, although Scotland is still likely to host the largest population (> 77% of total population in 2004; JNCC, 2007).

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Further information sources

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  1. Natural England., 2014. Otters: surveys and mitigation for development projects. Wildlife and habitat conservation and Protected sites and species. [On-line]. Natural England and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. Available at:​
  2. Roos, A., Loy, A., de Silva, P., Hajkova, P. & Zemanová, B., 2015. Lutra lutra. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e. T12419A21935287.
  3. Scottish Natural Heritage., 2010. Otters and development. Scottish wildlife series. [On-line] ​Scottish Natural Heritage. Available from: ​
  4. Tyler-Walters, H., James, B., Carruthers, M., Wilding, C., Durkin, O., Lacey, C., Philpott, E., Adams, L., Chaniotis, P. & Wilkes, P., 2016. Descriptions of Scottish Priority Marine Features (PMFs). Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report, no. 406 


This review can be cited as:

Wilson, C.M. 2017. Lutra lutra Eurasian river otter. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 19-09-2018]. Available from:

Last Updated: 11/12/2017

Tags: Eurasian river otter Lutra lutra