Otters: advice for making planning decisions

How to assess a planning application when there are otters on or near a proposed development site.

Applies to England

This is Natural England’s ‘standing advice’ for otters. It is a material planning consideration for local planning authorities (LPAs). You should take this advice into account when making planning decisions. It forms part of a collection of standing advice for protected species.

Following this advice:

  • avoids the need for you to consult on the impacts of planning applications on otters in most cases
  • can help you make decisions on development proposals

You may need a qualified ecologist to advise you on the planning application and supporting evidence. You can find one using either the:

How otters are protected

Otters are designated and protected as European protected species (EPS). EPS are protected under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017.

It is an offence to:

  • deliberately kill, injure, disturb or capture them
  • damage or destroy their breeding sites and resting places - even if otters are not present
  • possess, control or transport them (alive or dead)

It is also an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to intentionally or recklessly:

  • disturb otters while they occupy a structure or place used for shelter or protection
  • obstruct access to a place of shelter or protection

Otters are listed as rare and most threatened species under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). You must have regard for the conservation of Section 41 species as part of your planning decision. Find out more about your biodiversity duty.

The developer must comply with the legal protection of otters.

You should consider if the developer has taken appropriate measures to avoid, mitigate and, as a last resort, compensate for any negative effects on otters.

The developer may need to apply for an otter mitigation licence to carry out their proposal.

When to ask for a survey

A survey is needed if:

  • distribution and historical records suggest otters may be present - you can search the National Biodiversity Network Atlas by species and location
  • development will affect a water body, river, stream, lake, sea or marshland
  • development will affect habitats near a water body directly or through environmental effects, such as creating noise or light

Absence of a record does not mean there are no otters. It could mean there is no survey data available for that location.

Survey work can include:

  • presence or absence surveys
  • habitat surveys

You must check if the ecologist is qualified and experienced to carry out surveys for otters. CIEEM publishes:

The ecologist should also follow the Biodiversity code of practice for planning and development (BS 42020:2013) available on the British Standards Institute website. These documents may not be accessible to assistive technology.

The ecologist must hold an appropriate licence to carry out some non-routine survey activities.

Assess the effect of development on otters

To understand the level of mitigation needed in the development proposal, it must show:

  • how likely it is that otters will be affected by any development work
  • the size of the development, for example, if it’s a large development close to where otters are it might affect them more

The following could affect otters and their habitat if the development proposal causes:

  • habitat loss or degradation in or near water bodies
  • habitats being cut off and becoming fragmented
  • loss of holts and resting places
  • disturbance to resting and feeding places
  • disturbance to their usual routes, for example, a road bridge or culvert works forcing otters to use roads or bridges that might mean it’s more likely to cause them death or injury
  • a change to water quality which could also affect food sources

Avoidance, mitigation and compensation measures

Look for examples of avoidance, mitigation or compensation plans in the development proposal. The proposal could avoid:

  • work on or near the water body and known otter habitat, including work to road crossings and culverts
  • disturbance effects, for example, by leaving a buffer zone along a river
  • night works

The size of the buffer zone along the stretch of water will vary depending on:

  • how otters use the area
  • the type of vegetation at the site
  • the level of existing background disturbance
  • the level of proposed disturbance

Where avoidance measures are not possible, mitigation measures could include designing the development so that it:

  • retains otter habitats in the water body and bank
  • uses otter-proof fences to stop otters getting into development sites

Otters are highly territorial animals with large home ranges. Depending on the quality of the habitat and availability of food, males can range along rivers for 35km. Otters will continue to try and use routes if alternatives are not included in a mitigation strategy.

If the destruction of an otter holt is unavoidable, you must make sure:

  • there is no net loss of breeding or resting sites
  • an enhanced habitat, for example, its quality or area compared with that lost is provided
  • any loss of otter access and habitat connectivity is replaced

The proposal could include compensation measures to:

  • construct artificial holts to replace those that will be damaged or removed
  • build viaducts or underpasses to allow otters to cross barriers like roads
  • install mammal ledges on bridges and culverts to allow for continued passage alongside water bodies
  • restore or improve habitats to compensate for those that will be lost

For more information on mitigation plans and compensation measures, read the planners guide for protected species and development.

Planning and licence conditions

If the proposal is likely to affect an otter, the developer must apply for an otter mitigation licence.

Before you can grant planning permission, you must:

  • make sure any mitigation or compensation conditions you impose do not conflict with the requirements of an otter mitigation licence
  • be confident that Natural England will issue a licence

You do not need to consult Natural England on the wording or discharge of any conditions you impose on a planning proposal. Natural England is unable to provide advice on this.

Enhance biodiversity

To meet your biodiversity duty, you should suggest ways for the developer to:

  • create new or enhanced habitats on the development site
  • achieve a net gain in biodiversity through good design, such as green roofs, street trees or sustainable drainage

Site management and monitoring

You should consider the need for site monitoring and management. These measures are likely to be needed by protected species licences.

A site management and monitoring plan should:

  • maintain habitat suitability - with habitat management if required
  • check there are no barriers to otter movement
  • check there are no added pressures from increased human presence post-development

This can include carrying out additional survey work to check that mitigation measures are working as intended, followed by remedial work if needed.

Published 14 January 2022