FAST FOOD An otter is easily capable of catching even the swiftest mullet.
Country Sights and Sounds
We found the waters of Clew Bay coloured by the dawn and filled with inverted island landscapes, including an upside-down view of Croagh Patrick. The tide was full, or nearly so, and so very flat that the movement of fish far out in the bay as well as in tidal creeks was easily detected.
These are grey mullet. Lest the word ‘grey’ conjure images of drab and flabby fishes fit only for the cat, let me elaborate a little. Grey mullet are remarkably beautiful. Set aside the slightly astonished look they bear on being captured and focus on that perfectly streamlined shape, the pristine fins and the armoured scales with their hints of primrose, purple and gold.
We ate them before and found their flesh firm and white, and almost as good as that of the coveted sea bass. Our friends on the continent enjoy them greatly. Some turn them away, claiming mullet eat only sewage. And it is true that these fishes will swarm around any kind of operating waste pipe, sometimes in great numbers. Some large fish can be found in such places. We saw them up to ten pounds or so at Mulranny, perhaps 20 years ago. (We didn’t even think of eating those.)
As we continue to clean up our act, in some respects at least, fish that previously found easy, regular feeding are compelled to revert to their natural diet. In the case of our mullet, this will be small and sometimes tiny forms of marine life. Often they feed right at the surface, making themselves highly visible to the watching angler.
The sight of half a dozen yard-long fishes swimming alongside each other in shallow water only feet from the shore can be too much. The fish swim in slow circles, supping and sipping with great delicacy, their dorsal fins cutting long Vs that continue to spread long after they have passed.
In the UK mullet have become a cult fish, with some anglers going after nothing else, yet here, where we have some of the finest shoals of mullet to be found, those pursuing them are few.
At Lecanvey we walked around the back of the pier and sat in the early sun. While too weak to properly warm the stones it was, nonetheless, too inviting to refuse. We could see a long bank of weed hanging in the tide, perhaps 100 paces out, and see lines of fish feeding in the shade they cast. Now and then a small group of three or four broke away to complete some kind of circuit before rejoining the throng, and as the tide continued to creep in, the fish drew closer until we could really see what was happening.
Another half dozen darted out from cover, and this time they didn’t turn back, but furrowed through the surface before dividing then dividing again. A larger and much darker individual appeared to be lagging behind. It first followed one, then another, and then returned to that bank of weed. What could it be?
Otter. The crafty thing had found its own floating restaurant, an ‘Eat-all-you-like’ buffet. There is no question that the otter is easily capable of catching even the swiftest mullet. And I would say this individual had already eaten its fill, for the chase was perfunctory and playful rather than born of necessity.
Otters tend to hunt from below, rather than from behind. Most fish have their eyes toward the top of the head, which allows them to see above and around, but not beneath, and the otter family have learned to capitalise on this feature.
I don’t know if our otters have always eaten mullet. Eels were always a favourite food, but since these have almost disappeared from the Irish landscape an alternative had to be found, so perhaps this is it.
Way back in 1853 Thomas Lister penned his ‘Tributary Ode to Stainborough’, including these words:
‘The Brown diving otter is no longer gliding
Beneath the fring’d banks of the cool valley rill
Nor bittern is calling, not curlew is hiding,
Nor badger is hous’d in the cleft of the hill.’
The Industrial Revolution of northern Britain was already taking its toll on the local wildlife. What would he make of us, I wonder, with few salmon, fewer sea trout, scarcely an eel. But we do have an otter, and a thousand mullet filling the niche of those we have lost.
How fine it would be to see the world brim with life as it ought.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.