In search of the elusive otter

High on Dartmoor beside the watery wildness of Cranmere pool, eight miles from the nearest road, you can hear only wind and the trickle of springs. Listen harder and you might notice swaying grass, your footfall and your own breath. Here, in remote south-west England, there is neither sight nor sound of the modern world.

The undulating marsh stretches to the horizon, its contours broken by occasional granite tors that rise like megaliths from the peat. A raven might fly high overhead and break the thrum of quiet with the rasp of its cry. A lone buzzard mews its mournful reply. These sounds are the voices of a landscape that has remained untouched for thousands of years.

This is where author Henry Williamson came while writing his 1927 classic Tarka the Otter. Williamson knew this animal had evolved millions of years before us, and he was attracted to its wild, eerie mystery. He became an expert otter tracker and visited this isolated tangle of river sources to write about what he saw as otter country.

With its powerful imaginative spirit, Williamson’s celebrated story and its crystalline images have left a legacy. Now in Devon there is “Tarka Country”, a “Tarka Trail” and the “Tarka Line”, a railway branch that runs from Exeter to the north Devon coast.

Otters were nearly wiped out in the 1970s as a result of pesticides being washed into the streams, but now, if you look beyond the “Tarka” merchandising, you don’t have to search Devon too far before you can find signs of the real thing. These shy creatures are cherished all over Britain as one of the country’s greatest conservation successes, and in Devon there are more otters per square mile than in any other county in England.

I spent a year in search of this elusive animal in the wild, and was repeatedly reminded of Williamson’s descriptions of this unspoiled county with its lush green, water-filled landscape. The pure rivers that rush down from the granite outcrop of Dartmoor are primordial otter country where, during the worst period of pollution in the past century, just a few otters remained safe.

These surviving animals were able to recolonise the south-west of England and these days, though still rare and classified as vulnerable, the wild otter is being sighted here more and more frequently.

Spotting otters requires a few straightforward techniques: when I began to search in a stream near my Devon home, I always snuck out alone, removing any temptation to chat and cause the sensitive wildlife to flee; I always went in the same clothes, chosen because they did not rustle or catch the light; I wore no perfume or other cosmetics – otters have an acute sense of smell; I took no crackly snacks as otters’ hearing is superb and I found a spot close to my stream, disguised by the thick trunk of an old oak.

To maximise my chances of a sighting, I positioned myself facing a sweeping view of the water, where the stream poured into a meander of the main river and over its wide tidal mudflats.

You need sharp eyes to see an otter, and the aid of binoculars can make all the difference. As predators, otters are designed to be invisible both in and out of the water; their brown fur seems to merge with the shade and texture of their background. A dry otter’s coat looks like the colour of mud. A wet otter, on the other hand, can look as black as liquorice, as silt-dark as the water in which it swims.

In the water the otter leaves a rippling wake, and this might be the first sign that it is there. An otter is so buoyant that its rudder – the long tail it uses to steer – may also bob to the surface. If the otter is busy fishing under water, it cannot hear, smell or see a silent watcher, and it may be too preoccupied to notice anything unusual when it surfaces eating its prey. This is when we can sometimes carefully creep a little closer.

But where to look for signs? Otters have long made use of the bridges we humans have built because they protect sprainting sites (places where the otters leave their spraint, or droppings, as scent marks). In the shelter beneath a bridge, scent communications remain intact for longer. We can use this to our advantage. Spraint is a sure sign that otters pass by regularly.

Appearing like dark smudges left on a mound beside the river, the spraint is often placed on the most prominent part of a rock at the edge of a stream. It has a sweet smell resembling jasmine tea and contains a concoction of chewed-up fish bones.

Otters habitually patrol along the same familiar routes, scent marking with spraint as they go. If you are lucky and there is silt or sand at the edge of a river, you may find tracks. Otters have five webbed toes, although the otter is so light on its feet that often only four show. The paw-print is the size of a small dog, and the toes are widely spaced in a crescent around the front of the paw, each with a distinctive teardrop shape tipped with a claw.

It was only after I had learnt to identify all these otter signs that success came. I had seen spraint by my stream, found tracks and, during one evening foray, I recognised a fishy-otter smell rising from a bundle of grass. When I looked more carefully, I discerned a small, worn pathway made by otters as they passed, leading up from the wide tidal stretch where the river curled around farmland on the opposite bank. This was the otter’s regular round.

As the tide rose I propped myself against the oak trunk and waited. I may have been there an hour or more but the time seemed to blur. A tawny owl cried out, geese flew in formation to their roost, a fox barked. Then I heard it; a single, high-pitched whistle floating over the water. The otter’s call.

Remaining very still, I anticipated the characteristic trail of bubbles the otter leaves as it swims beneath the surface. Sounds of water-birds lifted through mist as the light fell. The otter had disturbed some moorhens. Then, there it was, on the lip of the water, mud-coloured, so close to the river in shade and shape it was barely distinguishable. The head surfaced first but, then, something strange – it morphed into two otters.

They hauled out, shaking like dogs, scattering water droplets from their whiskers. I could barely breathe with excitement. They loped together along the edge of the river, backs arched, skinny and alert. Then, as suddenly as I had seen them, they melted into the reeds of the marsh with a subtle shift. I was left alone, my heart dizzy and my hands shaking.

For the first time I had seen the creature I’d known was there but had never before glimpsed so near to home. The greatest surprise was that the encounter was as memorable as any far-flung safari adventure, and worth far more to me.

Miriam Darlington is the author of ‘Otter Country’ (Granta) to be published on September 6. She will be talking at the Wigtown Festival on October 4 and 6,

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