Thursday, 9 February 2006

On the trail of the Otter

There have been more signs of otter activity locally in recent weeks, encouraging news for a species that is recovering from a decline that began fifty years ago. The introduction of persistent organochlorine pesticides was part of a post-war drive towards agricultural self-sufficiency. The otter population suffered the consequences of our lack of understanding of the impacts of these toxic chemicals on the wider environment. Now that the use of such chemicals has ceased, we are seeing a recovery in the otter population, albeit with something of a helping hand in the form of a reintroduction programme. Even though the signs are encouraging, many of the Norfolk rivers that may once have supported otters have yet to be reoccupied. Periodic surveys, together with the conservation efforts of the Otter Trust and the Anglian Otters and Rivers Project, show that the population is recovering and expanding slowly.

Seeing an otter is a rare occurrence. The species is secretive and mainly nocturnal and this is one of the main reasons why encounters are so rare. Here is a creature perfectly adapted to its riverine existence and well able to slip away unnoticed if disturbed. Roger Deakin, in his wonderfully evocative book Waterlog, writes of a momentary encounter with an otter while he was swimming in the River Waveney. Deakin describes the otter’s “puckish, Dionysian habit” of veiling itself from view, something to which I can relate from my own encounters with these spirits of the river. While Deakin’s otter slipped from the floating log on which it had been sunning itself to disappear from sight, my most engaging encounter was with an otter that seemed positively curious about what I was doing. The otter was hunting in a deep pool that I often scan for pike and I saw its dark silhouette below the surface. I waited patiently and then the otter surfaced. It was clear that it had seen me against the sky but, nonetheless, it seemed inquisitive, almost pleasantly surprised by the creature that stood staring down from the bridge above. Having given me a rather prolonged once over, the otter slipped away into the deep of the pool and was lost in the shadow of the bridge.

I walk along this stretch of river everyday, to and from work, and yet I have only seen the otters themselves on a handful of occasions over the last five years. Their droppings, placed at prominent locations to advertise their residency to other otters, are more commonly encountered so I know they are still there. Knowing this, generates a sense of anticipation each time I walk along the river and I wonder if I am being watched from the shadows under the bank.

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