Sunday, 13 July 2014

There are two types of Otter increasing in the countryside!

This Otter, fish in mouth, still took the time to check me out!
 The water loving animal the Otter seems to be thriving again, following catastrophic declines back in the 1960s, and is now once more to be found in every English county. Meanwhile, another sort of “Otter” – an old fashioned barley variety called Maris Otter is also flourishing once again!

There is evidence from an Oxford University study that where Otters are in good numbers on a stretch of river, they actually help to displace the non-native Mink, reducing both the population density and distribution, which in turn could be good for Water voles which can be completely wiped out by high Mink numbers.

Not everyone is totally happy about the increase in Otter numbers though, as can be seen from this extract from the Angling Trust. “One of the results of the recovery of otter populations has been increased concern about predation, particularly on still water fisheries and on specimen fish. This creates a challenge to all those involved in river, wetland and fishery management to ensure that the return of our top freshwater predator is not seen as a problem for fisheries interests”.

Certainly here in Hampshire Otters seem to be doing well, with individuals regularly picked up on security cameras ambling through the centre of Winchester at night, following the river Itchen which also runs through the town. The river managers who look after the Test and Itchen chalk streams, so famous worldwide as top fishing rivers and important to the local economy, have rather mixed feelings over the rise in Otter numbers.
As ever, the management of the countryside, with so many different demands on it, is often a complicated business.

The other rapidly increasing “Otter” in the countryside on the other hand, seems only to be bringing joy to everyone’s lips! Maris Otter is a variety of barley commonly used in the brewing industry and was bred by Dr G D H Bell and his team of plant breeders at Cambridge way back in 1966. Dr Bell bred Maris Otter with the express purpose of producing a barley variety that would give consistently high quality malt for the cask-conditioned ale market and he was not disappointed as it quickly became a dominant variety due to its superior malting characteristics.

As we read that pubs are closing everywhere and sales of mainstream beer are in decline, is it not fantastically refreshing (literally!) that Britain now boasts over a thousand microbreweries, bringing back traditional styles and experimenting with new flavours. These so called “Craft beers” as they are called, simply means that it is beer not brewed by one of the big "mega-brewery" corporations. The Brewers' Association defines a craft brewery as small, traditional and independent.

As the great locally brewed beer renaissance gathers pace, the demand for Maris Otter malt around the world is rapidly increasing. Last year 700 craft breweries opened in the USA alone and there are now over a 1000 up and running in China, so you can begin to see why Maris Otter barley commands large premiums over other malting barleys. Brewery aficionados will tell you that beer brewed using malt from this old variety gives a depth of flavour and character that no other malt variety can get near.  Couple this with its history, its unique ‘Britishness” and provenance - no wonder that Maris Otter is the malt of choice for astute brewers around the globe.

Among the fields of gold - there may be a variety of Otter lurking! 

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