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The curious otter

Outdoor Living

OTTERLY LOVELYIreland has become a stronghold for these intelligent little animals, at a time when populations across Europe are in decline.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

Madra Uisce: half his length in water, instantly double-sized as he emerged, jaws snapping and eyes wild beneath the bristling forehead. Most otters take a step back when I meet them, and tend to float eye-level at the surface of river or lake and observe me with courteous interest. This individual obviously didn’t like me dropping by and wasn’t shy about letting me know. His initial bravery quickly waned, however, and a mere moment after that violent confrontation he turned and slipped, more fluid that the stream itself, back the way he had come.
Back in his element he proved himself both acrobat and magician. Having made sure he had my attention by means of a pretty combination of soft squeaking and low whistles, he rolled easily in the water and disappeared. I looked up and down the river pool thinking I could follow the trail of bubbles otters leave in their underwater wake. There were none, yet then there he was before me, a mere rod length away, once more a dark round set with jewelled eyes and half a tail three feet behind.
The long stare he gave made me a little uneasy. I never heard of an otter attack, apart from Henry Williamson’s fictional Tarka, that is, yet this fellow had already shown his fiery temper and I couldn’t be sure. I stared back until I had to blink. In that instant he was gone, leaving an oily roil to mark his spot.
Half a minute later something moved in the rushes behind me, creating a light plashing in the flooded field. I craned my neck and searched for the source of the sound. Nothing moved. When I looked to the river there was the otter once more, back where he had been, holding position in the current and watching me closely. Again, that light churring noise came from behind. Were there two of them?
Our game continued, with the otter in the river appearing and disappearing each time I looked away, and the creature in the rushes doing just enough to let me know it was there. I was afraid of neither and was interested in the communication that seemed to be taking place, with the occasional whistling exhalation from the water bringing a strange, creaking response from behind.
I was in no hurry, despite the cold creeping into my feet and water seeping into my boot to let me know my previous scramble through the hedge had given me a slow blackthorn puncture.
After a while, my otter took to swimming the length of the pool, turning at the head and again at the tail and returning repeatedly to the same spot to take another look, as if it thought me incredulous. I began to think that this was a male and that beneath the alder on the far bank he might have his holt, wherein lay his sow and perhaps her family of little ones.
Thinking there was no advantage in causing further distress I turned away, whereon the creature in the rushes revealed itself to be nothing less than a water rail as it fled for better cover with a pig-like squeal. A water rail; one of our more unusual waterside birds, hopefully returned to this perfectly suitable area to breed after a year or two away.
As I made my way downstream I found myself following a well-used, foot wide track along the riverbank, with otter droppings, or spraints, as they are properly called, marking various places of lutrine significance, interspersed with short pathways where one or more animals had made a habit of entering and exiting the river.
Typically deposited in prominent places, these spraints tell other otters that might come along that this stretch of river has an owner, and that it might be in the newcomer’s best interests not to pause without good cause. I stopped to inspect one of the larger deposits. It had a decidedly fishy odour and was comprised almost entirely of the bony carapaces of the endangered white-footed crayfish, which abound in this particular water.
A decade ago a man in authority (who should have known better) told another, this individual renowned for his appetite, that it was perfectly lawful to catch and eat all the crayfish wanted, which was good news indeed. Accordingly, a basket of them went home with him to be boiled and consumed with a very good bottle of Bordeaux. His verdict? Little wonder otter spraints smell like they do. Leave them to the otters, I say.