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The otter – an ingenious creature

That Henry Williamson has a lot to answer for. His remarkable book, Tarka the Otter fired a generation with a love of Lutra lutra and a fierce loathing of those who sought to harm it. As a young man, I saw a tweedy bloke in a pub wearing on his lapel a pin marked BOH. I asked him what it meant and he replied: ?In the morning it stands for Band of Hope, at lunchtime it becomes Bucks Otter Hounds and in the evening it?s Bugger Off Home.? mazing ? at the time I did not know that you could hunt the little chap, but many did and I believe Shooting Times?s very own Graham Downing was into the sport in his days as a young splinter. When, in the 1950s, the otter was given full and special protection, otter hunts simply changed into mink hunts.

It was a rare beast when I was a boy and though I lived in a watery county, I never saw so much as a whisker. I heard of those who said they had but there was something in their eyes that suggested they might have been spinning me along. To find an otter you had to go to the west coast of Scotland or deep into the West Country and even then you had to work hard and be extremely lucky. It was incredibly scarce, its decline attributed to the usual causes: habitat deterioration, lack of cover and suitable holts, and human disturbance, not only hunting, but trapping. The otter liked fish ? surprise, surprise ? and those who had the job of running and protecting fisheries and caring for their charges regarded old Tarka much as a gamekeeper regards a fox in a release pen.

Then came Gavin Maxwell with his stories of tame otters on his Scottish retreat of Camusfearna and next the film, Ring of Bright Water, in which the road mender whacks the star otter with a spade, followed by the song of the same name ? all tear-jerking stuff. We heard less of the otter that bit a couple of fingers off one of Maxwell?s house guests, for they can be
spiteful creatures. It must be said that his otters were not the native UK sort, but marsh otters from Iraq. A naturalist named Phillip Wayre set himself the task of reintroducing our native otter to its old haunts and he ran a breeding-and-release programme that, coupled with full protection, was the start of the revival.

Now, many years later, it is fair to say that the otter is common and many reading these lines will have seen one. I meet one most times I go fishing the Tweed, and a recent report announced that the beastie was to be found in every
county except Kent. When first I wrote for this distinguished journal, that claim could not be made. Much of its appeal is that it is beautiful to watch and playful ? a film of young otters glissading down a mudslide into the water or being taught by their mother softens the hardest heart. Once, I landed a small salmon that had both pectoral fins neatly sheared off. The gillie told me that the mutilation was a mother otter disabling the fish to teach its cubs how to hunt. It was not uncommon, he said. Two hundred years ago, William Scrope (Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing), told how his fisherman caught a young otter by the tail and when it squealed, its mother rushed from the water and gave him such a beating that he released the creature. Later, he caught it again but once more, the mother came to its rescue and the man gave it back.

Ripples like silk

The otter is a member of the mustelid tribe that includes mink, stoats, badgers, polecats and pine martens. In fact, it is but a giant water weasel that likes fish, among other things. A big one can measure 1m and weigh in at 17kg, though they are often much smaller. It is easy to recognise, though some observers who ought to know better have confused one for a mink, for on shore it has a slightly stooping, short-legged gait and is a rather sluggish mover. It gets its underwater manoeuvrability from a massive tail, thick at the root and tapering, hence the term ?otter tail? in Labradors.

Once in the water, it is transformed. It swims elegantly and sinuously, sliding through the ripples like silk, with none of the jerky paddling of a mink. On land, it runs in bounds, and in snow, it slithers, making a distinctive track that it uses more than once. It seems to enjoy skidding downhill, as delighted as a child on a home-made sledge, for it will repeat the same slither many times. When suspicious, it will lie in the water, only the tip of its nose showing, and remain there on watch. Startle it, and it vanishes as if by magic. When hunting, it can catch the most agile fish including salmon and trout ? which it does as if for sport, seeming to revel in its mastery of the water,twisting and turning more like an eel than a mammal.

It marks its territory with droppings known as spraint, an evergreen sporting question in pub quizzes. This stuff looks shrivelled, black and not at all appealing, but otter lovers treat spraint as holy relics, carrying samples about in small boxes, comparing particularly choice specimens with other disciples and getting the unwary to take a deep sniff. It smells sweet enough and contains mostly fish remains, but it is not to everybody?s taste. Once, on a Purdey Award shoot visit, the owner saw spraint on the riverbank, uttered a cry of glee, pounced upon it, seized it and thrust it into the face of a lady judge, who recoiled in such horror that she almost fell in. One man?s meat is another man?s poisson.

A right to survival

Now, the otter seems here to stay and it is found across the whole of Europe, including Spain and Italy. There is no doubt that spiritually, we are better off with the otter than without it, for it is a native species, never quite wiped out. It has a place among us and a right to stay. However, the impact of encouraging a large predator has implications that those so keen to bring back Tarka might not have appreciated. Those who seek now to bring back wolf, lynx and brown bear, not to mention sea eagles in lowland England, need to think carefully. Perhaps their time in an overcrowded, industrial island has passed. On the plus side, the otter has certainly reduced the mink. It is territorial and guards a large patch, an adult male taking up to 40km of shoreline, and that is bad news for any mink that wanders in. The mink is non-native and a far more damaging predator than its larger cousin.

The otter eats anything living and can do damage to fisheries. A friend in the village had his pond cleared of specimen carp by a family of otters. They prefer flatfish, crabs and especially eels, but the latter are now 90 per cent down in number and otters have to eat something, so they turn to salmon, trout, coarse fish, crayfish, and duck.

A keeper was losing broods on his grouse moor and no obvious culprit presented itself. In time, he found an otter making its way up the hill from the river a mile away along a series of trickles and peat hags, and taking the birds. An ornamental fish farm on the Teviot high above the river on the roadside had its tanks of specimen koi covered in stout mesh, as otters had learned the trick of climbing up from the river and raiding the tanks. How long before one finds a pheasant release pen or runs into a fox snare, bringing it into conflict with keepers? They are ingenious, and for a creature believed to be shy and nocturnal, protection has given them new confidence. Otters may be seen in busy docks and sailing clubs, or round industrial wharves. For better or worse, Tarka is back and here to stay. We must make room for him and learn to live alongside him.