OTTERS have returned to Swindon for the first time in 50 years.

A new survey by the Environment Agency has revealed that there are at least two otters living on the rivers Ray and Cole which run through Swin-don.

The National Otter Sur-vey, carried out every 10 years, has also revealed evidence of about 12 otters in the Thames area up-stream from Oxford.

Cotswold Water Park and the Thames at Lech-lade are also popular spots for otters.

The resurgence has been put down to the out-lawing of harmful agricult-ural pesticides.

According to the Envir-onment Agency, otters are evidence that the whole ecosystem of a river is in good shape because they are at the top of the food chain. Agency otter expert Graham Scholey said: "We are keen to see them come back because the UK is a important part of the Euro-pean population.

"The fact they are using rivers close to Swindon shows they have respect-able fish populations and a reasonable quality of habitat.

"The chances of seeing them in Swindon are slim but if you are in Coate Water early in the morn-ing you might get lucky."

Environment Agency worker Keith Webb, 57, has manned a lock near Lechlade for the last 33 years.

He spotted his first otter three years ago.

He said: "They are charismatic and myster-ious. There is something about them."

Facts and figures

IN 1950 there were thought to be 10,000 or more otters in England, now there are just one or two thousand.

Although the Thames Valley has increasing numbers of otters it still has one of the smallest populations in England.

Before 1950 every major river in England had otters.

There are 13 species of otter in the world and the one indigenous to the UK is called Lutra Lutra.

Fully grown, they measure two to three feet and live for about 10 years. They require around 10 miles of undisturbed riverbank.

Some 35 per cent of English rivers and wetlands now have evidence of otters compared with 5.8 per cent 20 years ago.