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.

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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?

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

The Sparrowhawk

Jim picked me up from work at The Old Forge yesterday and, as I loaded my tools into the car, told me that he’d almost driven over a sparrowhawk crouched on the lane leading up to the house.  Luckily, he had braked in time and the bird flew away, as did an injured pigeon it had caught.

Buzzards circling lazily overhead are now a common sight on the South Downs; but other than those and an almost tame host of wild rabbits eyeing this gardener with ill-concealed contempt, I hadn’t seen any wildlife of interest whilst working and felt a little peeved at missing an up-close bird of prey.

After locking up the outbuildings and casting a satisfied eye over the freshly mown lawns, I climbed into the car, ramped up the air-conditioning, took off my sun-hat and gratefully grabbed the proffered can of cold coke.  It had been a long, hot, tiring day’s mowing.

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Pulling away through The Forge’s gate and onto the road, we were both excited to see that the sparrowhawk was back.  With its recaptured prey.

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Jim cut the engine and we coasted to a slow halt feet from where the hawk tore at the freshly caught pigeon.

Feverishly, I fished about on the back seat for my camera bag: unzipped it, took out my Nikon, removed its case, unlocked the standard lens, placed it carefully on the dashboard, found my telephoto, took it out of its case, attached it to the camera, took off the lens-cap, turned on the camera, pressed buttons and swivelled dials, looked through the viewfinder, swivelled dials some more – all the while knowing that the hawk would be long gone by the time I was finally ready for my first shot.

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But it wasn’t.  As their name suggests, sparrowhawks hunt small birds and it’s a little unusual for them to catch something as large as a pigeon.

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This female wasn’t about to abandon her bounty to a couple of gawking bystanders.

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I see sparrowhawks often, close up even, and only once when I had my camera in hand  but usually they’re up and away as soon as I stumble upon the scene.

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Today though, our car served as a perfect bird-hide and this Accipiter nisus, unconcerned by a stationary silver box, continued feeding.  Messily.

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So often when photographing chance wildlife, I have seconds in which to take a shot and  usually in poor light too.

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But yesterday, the soft afternoon sunlight backlit the raptor beautifully and I couldn’t believe my luck – and the unexpected camouflage gifted by our shabby, old car.

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But however thrilled we were by her gorgeous markings, her stature, her presence, her pantaloons; this was a gruesome scene with sharp beak tearing off chunks of flesh.  Especially gruesome because for overly long minutes, the pigeon was still alive.  This was no clean, quick kill.

After a while, and with the pigeon now mercifully dead, she grasped its body with her talons and flew down the lane, landing in front of a farm building.  Jim started the engine and we rolled after her, pulling up alongside.

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It is always exciting to see a terrific wildlife scene worthy of a David Attenborough voice over;

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if only on a quiet, Sussex byway – rather than the Serengeti or the Himalaya.  But watching that hawk eating her still-alive prey was pretty horrid and not a thing I needed to see.

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My close relationship with the natural world is a marvellous bonus to gardening but occasionally it reminds me – vividly, starkly – of how indifferent to suffering that world truly is and just how precarious life is.  The sparrowhawk wasn’t being cruel in eating her quarry alive; she simply wasn’t aware, didn’t care.

The hawk’s feast and the pigeon’s demise was a bit of a conversation dampener on our short drive home.

oooOOOooo

Thursday’s encounter reminded me of two similar wildlife posts on my blog which you may not have seen: The Bedraggled Kestrel – about an even more intimate hawk encounter – and The Stoat and the Pigeon.  In the latter, and as you might guess, I’m afraid there is no happy ending for the pigeon.Save