The streams have been swollen for a while, making little tinkling brooks into gushing floods – although thankfully still keeping inside their banks. We stopped at the bridge, and movement in the water caught my eye. A splashing. My first through was that something had fallen in, and I tried to work out a rescue plan. Within seconds, a second splashing followed, and I could see small things moving – quite some yards away. Low in the water, they looked to be the size of ducklings, but it’s January. Water voles? Rats maybe. Can squirrels swim? I kept watching, and by this point my husband and son were watching and speculating alongside me. What on earth is that?
After a minute or so I felt sure I was seeing the heads of mammals. I started to wonder if it might be mink – I’ve seen them on the canal, and these looked to be about the right size. At the back of my mind was a word, that I kept pushing away. When you long to see something with all your heart, it can bias your perceptions, and so I mistrusted myself.
One of the possibly-mink upended itself, tail coming up straight out of the water. A broad, sturdy, rudder-like tail. That’s when I started crying. Mink have puny little tails, like a weasel, whereas the otter has a powerful swimming tail and I knew from years of reading books and going to otter talks, that if you can’t tell what you’re seeing because of the distance, the tail is the best indicator, there is no confusing the arse end of an otter with the bum of a mink.
I started looking for otters in earnest about 30 years ago. They’d almost gone from this land when I was a child. I heard of otter sightings when I lived on the canal, I know the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetland trust gets wild ones, I’ve met people who’ve seen them in the Stroud area. But until yesterday, I had never seen a wild otter.
There were two of them, and it eventually dawned on me that this is why they looked smaller than expected. British otters are antisocial. If you’ve seen big groups of otters in captivity, you’ve seen Asian otters. The American/Canadian otter will live in small family groups (there are three in an enclosure at Slimbridge). The British otter prefers to be alone. There’s no hanging about for the adult males, they start the breeding process and move on. More than one otter means a family. I think what I saw was two large cubs, playing – either mum was around, or they’d not long left her.
While we stood and watched, they carried on to give us a remarkable display of the most inherently otterish behaviour imaginable, including surfacing with small fish, and eating them while afloat, chasing each other, sticking tails up, and showing the pale underside of their chins and necks. Any ideas that they could be mink were entirely dispelled.
It was a profound, emotionally affecting thing to see them, and, I will hopefully see them again. Otters tend to work a fairly large territory, but families don’t range as far, and are likely to come back. It’s a wonderful prospect. It’s also a total validation of the value of paying attention to small details. A splash, an unfamiliar movement. Had I not stopped to check it out, I would not have seen them.