Abstract Otters Lutra lutra were persecuted increasingly in Britain for fishery protection and for sport throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. There are indications of a population recovery occurring during the 1914–1918 war with the temporary cessation of hunting and 'keepering. Intensive otter hunting with packs of hounds throughout the 1920s and 1930s appears to have stressed the population by altering the age structure. A catastrophic decline occurring simultaneously over England, Wales and southern Scotland, but most severe in the south-east and starting in 1957–1958, appears to have been triggered in this stressed population by a single new factor, pollution of the rivers by organochlorine insecticides. The trough in the decline may have occurred around 1977–1979. The first signs of rivers being re-occupied by otters have been seen by the early 1980s and partial recovery seems possible with legal protection and improved water quality.