Back from the brink

ONE of the tasks I set myself for the long hours of summer dusk was to go otter-spotting, so far unachieved this year.

Every county in England now contains a colony of these solitary, secretive animals, which are large members of the weasel family that tend to spend most of their day lying up a river bank.

Their density of population is greater in the west, among the hills and moorlands and away from humans.

Not so long ago they were trapped by water bailiffs as they made inroads into the new trout and salmon stocks being prepared for affluent fishermen, and it is only in the last two decades that many of our rivers have been sufficiently pollution free to allow their existence.

But otters have always had their problems. For many years, they were hunted by sportsmen with hounds as foxes were, so to assist their survival chances they pushed northwards into Scotland and the Western Isles.

Signs of otter movement in Lincolnshire are not uncommon, although actual sightings are rare. The River Bain at Horncastle is as likely a local haunt as any.

Over the years they taught themselves to live as confidently in the water as on land, a useful skill if hotly pursued by a large, drooling hound.

Their streamlined bodies, waterproof fur and webbed feet allow them to catch salmon, trout and eels as well as frogs, water fowl and snails.

There is no particular mating season with otters. Up to four cubs are born blind in an annual litter, and they have a lot of fun together playing on mud slides and chasing around the nocturnal shadows.

A bitch will stay with her family until the next mating season, but the male is a lonesome creature who never settles down to a life of domestic tranquility.

After a while, he will abandon home and family and move on to pastures new.

For purposes of finding food, otters will stake out a territory with droppings deposited in prominent places - a warning to other otters to keep away.

They will work a favourite river bank all night, but when starting off on their own they will often cover a surprising distance in a night’s excursions.

For such a solitary animal that has in the recent past often been hunted and persecuted by man, it is surprising to find that they make the best of pets.

The Scottish gentry, who own countless acres of uninhabitable land, used to let them run with their shooting dogs.

Captain James Dunbar once caught one near the Loch of Synie which he kept for a number of years. Then one of his labrador retrievers became very jealous of the otter so to prevent a possible tragedy he gave it to Edinburgh Zoo.

The otter settle down well and two years later the captain decided to visit his friend in its smart enclosure, complete with pond.

The otter was nowhere to be seen, so the captain summoned it with his own distinctive whistle which would have been familiar from the old days.

At once, the otter squirmed out of its hole and came bounding up to him in high glee.

If any of my girlfriends from long ago had come dashing up to me with half his enthusiasm after two years apart, I would have been pretty pleased with myself.

And I’m sure that the good captain drove back to his northern grouse moors with a warm glow within him.