An Otter In Stroud

Of all England’s mammals, there is one – more than any other – that I have always wanted to see in the wild.

Ring of Bright Water

That book

Only one animal which, since I saw that film and read that book as a boy, I’m aware of, subconsciously at least, as I walk alongside streams and rivers and shoreline.

When I was younger, many of England’s waterways were too polluted for fish and otters; and if otters could find clean water, they might be hunted with otterhounds. (Otter hunting was only outlawed in 1978). No surprise then that I thought my chances of spotting one in southern England were slim. But I looked nevertheless and especially when I travelled to more remote country in Lakeland, Wales or Scotland. I never expected to see one properly you understand; just a curve of wet fur rolling underwater or a streak of dark litheness flowing up a bank into undergrowth, leaving no trace but a ring of bright water.

And I most certainly never expected, not even in my weirdest dreams, to see one in front of my own house for goodness sake. Not a bloody otter.

Stroud Valley

The view from the house. The canal is in the foreground, the bench overlooks the hidden river beyond. The Friesian cow at the end of the rainbow is incidental. September 2018.

In August, we moved into a canal-front house in Stroud. And we knew on arrival that there are kingfishers here, nesting mute swans and I heard, to my stuttering disbelief, that otters live here too. As we’ve walked or cycled along the tow-path, I’ve been extra vigilant – obviously – hoping that I might finally see my wild otter. I’d seen kingfisher many times before I moved to Gloucestershire … yet to have seen them twice already from my house windows is still pretty amazing. But despite my fervent wish, I’ve seen no otter.

Until.

The other day, Jim and I were loading the car before driving off to Pembrokeshire. As we carried out far-too-much-stuff-for-a-three-night-break, we noticed a group of people on the far bank of the canal looking down into the river beyond.

Jim shouted, “What is it?” (half expecting them to shout back, “A body.”).

“An otter,” someone replied and after Jim and I had exchanged a wide-eyed grin, we left our luggage on the driveway, our house and car doors wide open and, grabbing my camera, jumped on our bikes, cycled seventy yards to the end of our road, crossed the footbridge and pedalled furiously back to the bench overlooking the river.

I stepped up onto the wall of the weir between canal and river and looked down into a mass of quaking watercress. Quaking because something was heaving it from beneath.

Otter Stroud (1)

I was twitching with excitement but still unbelieving … until up popped a dark blunt head. There he was: a wild, beautiful otter. Upon my word. He quickly disappeared but then re-emerged momentarily beyond the cress before curling back underwater. Was that it? Had he gone?

Otter Stroud (8)

Nope – he snapped up again, twisting manically and proving to be, in low light, a devilish camera subject.

Otter Stroud (7)

I continued clicking hoping for at least one decent shot before he was gone.

Otter Stroud (2)

But, he was in no hurry and appeared remarkably unconcerned by his adoring audience standing just a few feet away.

Otter Stroud (4)

He’d found a wealth of food and took his time enjoying it; whatever it might have been: snails perhaps or freshwater mussels.

Otter Stroud (3)

This was an encounter which slipped from hope to a breathless glimpse, to a prolonged close encounter, to … “Er, we really need to be off to Wales now, otter. Sorry.” Eventually, reluctantly, we let him be and cycled back to the car.

Otter Stroud (5)

There is so much relentlessly gloomy news about wildlife and the environment that this simple encounter was a significant and bright moment for me.

Otter Stroud (6)

For the rest of the day, at intervals, Jim or I would say, “We saw an otter. Outside our house.” Saying it made it more real.

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Over the following weekend, as we walked the stunning Pembrokeshire coast, the sheer amount of plastic waste washed up on the white sand was keenly depressing; providing more unremitting evidence of what harm we are doing to our planet. As if we need more.

But, but the Stroud canal, the Stroudwater Navigation, is one resounding success story, amongst the havoc. The Cotswold Canals Trust has restored most of it in the past few years and plans to continue its resurrection all the way under the M5 and out to Saul Junction, linking up with the national canal network.

When Jim was growing up in Stroud in the ’70s and ’80s, the canal was mostly derelict: partly filled in, built over, dumped full of rubbish and fenced-off completely in places. And now? Well, locks and bridges have been rebuilt or repaired, the towpath reinstated and maintenance barges chug past our house – dredging, cutting back vegetation, keeping the waterway clear. What was once a fenced eyesore for our neighbour when she moved here twenty-five years ago, is now a wide band of still water with the occasional kayaker; and its busy towpath is used by joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, schoolchildren and walking commuters. Thanks to all the astonishing work by the Trust and a host of volunteers, it is now home to a rich variety of wildlife including mallard, moorhen, swans, kingfishers and, would you believe it, bloody otters.

It’s nice to have some good news once in a while.

Win A Copy Of The ‘RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening’

The new, updated edition of the ‘RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening’ is released on 1st Septemberand I have one copy up for grabs.  

RHS Companion Wildlife

Here’s a little about Chris Baines’ book from the publisher, Frances Lincoln:

Wildlife has become a mainstream issue for gardeners and the public since this best-selling book was first published as ‘How to Make a Wildlife Garden’ and launched at the 1985 Chelsea Flower Show.  Fully revised and updated by the author, this beautiful new edition is freshly illustrated and it highlights the changes in garden wildlife over the past 30 years.  It incorporates RHS research, updates best practice and addresses a multitude of controversial conservation issues. The book is packed full of practical advice – which plants to choose for bees, birds and butterflies, how to construct the ideal wildlife pond, where to position nesting boxes; how to enjoy wildlife in any size of outdoor space. Good gardening is at the heart of this book, but it is also a celebration of the rich variety of wild plants and animals that can bring a beautiful garden to life. Gardeners have come to play an increasingly important role in nature conservation. The gardens of any town or village combine to create a rich and diverse network of wildlife habitats. The lawns and hedges, flower borders, shrubberies, vegetable patches and fruit trees are all important, and the author shows how wildlife gardening can make a stylish and enjoyable contribution to the environment. New gardeners will be inspired by this authoritative book and it will also delight the very many owners of the best-selling original.

Chris Baines is the UK’s foremost wildlife gardening expert. He has had a multifaceted career as a landscape architect, advisor to industry and government, teacher, writer and broadcaster, but the common theme that runs through all his work is concern for wildlife. He is National Vice President of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, winner of the RSPB conservation medal and a passionate campaigner for easy access to nature.

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity dedicated to advancing horticulture and promoting good gardening. Its RHS gardens are an inspiration to many and its charitable work provides expert advice and information, trains the next generation of gardeners, creates hands-on opportunities for children to grow plants, and conducts research into issues that affect gardeners.

Personally, I find attracting all sorts of wildlife into the garden a huge bonus; and very satisfying too.  Apart from slugs, that is.  And rabbits.  And lily beetles.  And sawfly.  And whitefly.  And deer.  And moles.  And … (We get the idea – Ed).  If enticing more creatures and wild-flowers into your garden is important to you too, this book will be a great addition to your gardening library.  For your chance to win a copy of the ‘The Companion to Wildlife Gardening’ simply:

say you want to enter in the “Any Thoughts?” box below

and

(if you don’t do so already) follow ‘The Anxious Gardener’ blog; and/or follow me on Twitter; and/or like The Anxious Gardener Facebook page.  The relevant follow buttons are in the sidebar.

You can also enter via Twitter or Facebook – check my twitter feed and Facebook page for details.

Please note that the prize can only be posted to a UK postal address.

The competition will close at midnight on Sunday 28th August 2016.

Priory Gardening Uniform

I’ll draw the winner from my very-smart-yet-practical-gardening-uniform hat and add the result to the bottom of this post.

Good luck!

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To order the ‘RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening’ at the discounted price of £20 including p&p* (RRP: £25), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code QPG445.

*UK only – please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

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The competition is now closed.  Thanks to everyone for taking part and the winner is Pauline – entered via the blog.  Congratulations.

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