Wednesday, 20 March 2013

River shiver

The whole river surface shivered.

Ripples sweeping outward, catching light and swirling bubbles. Through the brambles and twigs I see her flip out of the water like a slim torpedo. She's porpoising. Upstream, purposeful, not wasting an ounce of energy on anything else but her foraging journey. She's working the underbank, alone, disappearing, teasing the eye. But she can't hide her wake. 

What is it about these encounters?

This morning I was on my way back home, one eye still sweeping the water. Distracted by a great spotted woodpecker drumming high in the branches of an oak, and an ear to the warblers, nose attuned to the mulch, my breath and heartbeat matched the footfall and mingle of all this, then there she was.

It was 10am. The meandering walk was nearly over. I'd clocked the first little white petals of the wood anemone, the poking tongues of wild garlic all over the bank, the buds no longer resisting the cold but beginning to fill with sap. Watery sunlight breaking through misting cloud. The ducks muttering, then alarmed. You can depend on the water birds to give away an otter.

The wake widens as she moves across the current and pauses midstream to eat something. She's surrounded by encircling ripples as the water shivers outward from her form. It glitters behind her, ruffles each time she pauses. The stillness of this morning, no breeze, and low, lazy water mean that I can see every single movement. Now she's a lissom backwash and she's away, far too busy to notice me. Her bubbles rise in a wobbly fizz each time she dives, so I can get her close in the sights of my new Leica binocs each time she surfaces.

There she blows, crystal clear, close-up, smooth as a piece of the river itself. The otter is water, she's the colour and shape of it, a slip of current, but powerful against it  as she slides upstream.

Why is my heart beating so fast, every cell in my body zinging with something I recognise and yet don't quite know?

On one level, it's the punch-the-air moment of Yes! Success! Wait till I tell everyone!

On the other hand, it's something much more than this. We evolved with these animals; somewhere way back, there's a common ancestor. There's kinship, but there's also a recognition that goes far deeper than anything I can really explain. Is it that my body remembers its own wildness, somewhere in its cells, in its genetic memory?

If it's not this, then why does it feel this way? Why are these encounters so exhilarating?

Yesterday I had a message from my friend Mark Cocker reporting otters in the centre of a local town. They seemed to have lost their fear of people. The pics shown here are some of his. How long will it be before these centre-of-town otters get wise and remember to be properly wild, I wonder? Local people have taken them to heart, and these otters are true ambassadors, but the paparazzi have also arrived, and the otter below looks too busy feasting on frogs to be afraid. Never a good idea if you are an otter.. Contact between wild predators and people rarely has a positive outcome.

On the other hand, they have attracted the loving gaze of a whole town, and that can't be bad, can it?

Copyright Mark Cocker 2013

Where I live, the otters' middle name is stealth. They were ferociously hunted here, and are still extremely shy. Some still dislike them, perhaps with good reason. Otters like many predators live on a knife-edge of survival and will take an easy meal if it is on offer. So for this and many other reasons contact with us can spell danger, and the otters seem to know it. Only last week I heard of one that was shot for doing what otters do and freely feeding on somebody's fish. Two weeks ago our resident dog otter was hit and killed by a car.

The otter in Britain has the highest levels of European protection because it nearly became extinct due to human activity. Its recovery has been painfully slow and is still not secure, despite what the media tell us.

In his wonderful newly revised and updated book Otters, Paul Chanin says "There are many interesting lessons to be learned from the decline and recovery of otters. The most obvious is not to spread new chemicals throughout the environment until you thoroughly understand their effects. One sadly we don't seem to have learned yet."

Where will it end?

Otters were here first. They evolved millions of years before we did. The extraordinary question remains: why do we humans still consider it acceptable to persecute and disregard the other beings who share our planet?

Surely it shouldn't come down to money and ownership and profit. Shouldn't it be about what remains after we leave, about what we have left behind?

The whole river shivered. Ripples sweeping outward, catching light and swirling bubbles. Through the brambles and twigs I see her flip out of the water like a slim torpedo. She's porpoising. Upstream, purposeful, not wasting an ounce of energy on anything else but her foraging journey.

Where would we be without her?

All photos copyright Mark Cocker 2013


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Alice. I want that truth to ripple outward!

  2. Good to read more on your blog. Yes, it's offensive how we deal with some animals, mammals especially so. Saw a badger the other week on St David's Head - odd place to see one; out of context, in daylight too - made me look and think again.

    Looking forward to June!

  3. Thanks for the comment Mark.. Yes, if these animals are out in daylight or behaving unusually we must ask ourselves why.. is there a problem? Usually there is, or is about to be! They evolved to be nocturnal and shy of humans for good reasons..

  4. Every time i walk beside the Dart....its higher reaches I look for an otter but have only seen the one once in 30 years of walking there (as in my poem Fluent). And you just go for a meandering walk.... I think they must know it's you! Love X

    1. Aww! I can show you where to look. The river is so often in spate where you are; I think you need still water to see them.. in the lower reaches near me it's much easier to spot them, especially following sustained tracking, on a still morning, no wind, sharp eyes, and a bit of luck..

  5. So much beauty here Miriam, and such deep connection. I think you are right that we are reminded of our own animal wildness when we encounter wild creatures. I'm now yearning to encounter an otter...

  6. here is where i wish i wasnt a single parent so i could sneek out before the dawn, before the dog walkers and settle into a spot on the Teign and try for my first otter sighting...I suspect it will be a few years from now though when Silvie can be left alone for a while...! Loved meeting you and I learnt so much! really miss my nature watching. I also realised I know your brother! I am friends with Ce, we went to acupuncture college together! :) small world. much love xxx

  7. Take Silvie with you and train her to walk silently, or perhaps to walk like an otter! As otters don't chat, it might work.

  8. Well today we found our first otter prints!! it was so thrilling, i managed to find a pair of binoculars (like yours!) in the drang for £5!!! and we went along the river bank in the icy cold and the river levels had dropped since we did our last otter walk with you and this time we were rewarded with prints!! perfect ottery feets! :) very close to where the rock was with the spraint on that you pointed out to us i waded over (in wellies!) and got some superb pictures of them! Silvie loved it and is very into the idea of going on an early morning river walk to try and see some otters in the flesh...!xxx