Friday, 5 June 2009

Lutra lutra

Not so long ago otters were thought of as mythical creatures, similar to basilisks and unicorns, so rare were they in the waters of lowland Britain. In the second half of the twentieth century the population collapsed under the pressure of pollution, persecution and habitat loss and by the end of the 1970’s it is estimated that otters were absent from 94% of their former range. However, things are changing. Tougher legislation on agro-chemicals and pesticides has lead to cleaner water and laws also now protect both the animal and its habitats with the result that otters are re-colonising Britains waterways for the first time in decades. Indeed otters have recently been sighted in central London - meaning that we may have to accept the phenomena of urban otters raiding our garden ponds just as we have come to accept the urban fox raiding our dustbins. I’ve never seen a wild otter up close – just a quiet splash and a small bobbing head as they dip out of sight. Neither have I found either track or sign of otters, although my brother-in-law tells me that he has seen them in the middle course of the Wear and the lower stretch of the Browney whilst fishing, so I began to think of places where I could track and possibly watch otters and the place that came to mind was Hamsterley Forest. Hamsterley is a 2000 hectare working forest in the south west corner of Durham, lying between the catchments of the rivers Tees and Wear. Large stands of mature spruce predominate but a mixed woodland of beech, oak, sycamore and rowan spreads along the valley bottoms. Hamsterley is only a 20 minutes drive from my house but it’s somewhere I rarely visit and arriving one Sunday morning I realised why! The forest receives 150,000 visitors each year and it looked like most of them had decided to go on the same day as me. The car-park looked like Tesco on Christmas Eve. As I got out the car a bunch of kids kicked a football against the side of the cafĂ© and a boy on an electric scooter buzzed along the road. It really wasn’t what I wanted from a day in the woods but I resolved to get as far away from the crowds as quickly as possible and a few minutes later I was heading for my first search site. In researching the trip I had scoured the OS map and Google Earth finding over twenty miles of riverbank within the forest that could possibly support otters, from the broad lower reaches of the Bedburn beck to the smaller tributary becks further west. It was plain that I was only going to be able to search a small section of river bank in any one day so I decided to concentrate my efforts on the largest watercourse first. The Bedburn beck is actually a small river, fast and rocky. I had planned to track up its southern bank as that side was more heavily wooded and, I assumed, a more likely location for holts than the more frequented and open north bank. As I cut off the path into the undergrowth along the river side a pair of grey wagtails flew back and forth along a small shingle shoal, their yellow and grey plumage shining in the sun. The previous 24 hours had seen many heavy downpours of rain and the Bedburn was running brown and peaty, lapping in white waves over the thickly mossed rocks. I was hopeful that the recent rains would increase the chances of find good tracks and the substrate immediately along the river bank showed the most promise. Here and there small micro-beaches of sandy gravel had formed in the lee of large rocks and root boles and it was on these areas that I concentrated – looking for a slide mark to show where the otters entered the river, for feeding signs that showed which species they were preying on or for a territorial spraint to show others who this part of the river belonged to. The river side was slippery and steep, I often had to traverse and scramble along overhanging rocks and cliffs, using branches and roots for handholds as I moved along to the next likely patch of ground. On one of these spider-like scrambles along the rivers edge a wren darted out from the steeply overhung bank and lighted on a rock in front of me, squeaking and hopping. If it was trying to decoy me away from its nest it needn’t have bothered – try though I might I could not see hide nor hair of it in the shadowy depths of the roots hanging over my head. On an area of gently sloping river bank with easy access to the waterside I had my first breakthrough – a small dark coil of fresh otter spraint deposited neatly in the middle of a flat rock. So carefully chosen was the deposition site and so flat and round the stone that it looked like the scat had been set in the middle of a dinner plate. The spraint was approximately 3cm in length, dark in colour and still quite fresh. When broken up the spraint showed an olive green colour and had a mild, flowery smell. There were several small fish bones in the spraint but overall the consistency was slimy and soft. This was an encouraging find, with so many miles of riverbank to check and no information as to which areas might yield the best results it was good to know that I was at least in the right area. Otters are strongly territorial animals and the ranges of competing dog otters do not overlap, although females may have their range wholly within that of a male. The size of otter ranges varies depending on the amount of food available in the area – on a small narrow river like the Bedburn the range could be several miles long. I continued up the river, climbing over fallen trees and mossy rocks as a Dipper ducked and dived under the water upstream from me. At points the river cliffs were so sheer and mossy that traversing them was not an option and I was forced to climb out up the steep sides of the river bank and rejoin the bank further upstream. I was loathed to leave the river and potentially miss a sign but I consoled myself that it was unlikely that an otter would leave any sign in such steep and inaccessible places. Further up stream I came to a place that looked like a very likely spot. A narrow slide down the muddy bank was clearly visible and a tree root had been rubbed bare and shiny where the slide crossed the edge of the bank. Getting down on my hands and knees, trying to get as low a view of the ground as possible I could see disturbances and the transfer of specks of sand and gravel amongst the mud. Here and there the tiny pin-points of claw marks were visible and in another spot several meters ahead a narrow incision in the sand showed where a claw had sliced into the river bank. It had rained very heavily during the night and this incision was fresh and distinct, indicating that it had been made earlier that morning. The tracks were heading up a steep muddy bank away from the river into the woods and on this muddy bank I found a very clear and almost complete otter track showing 4 of the 5 claws, with both the digital pads and metacarpal pad showing in good detail. This track was almost 10cm long and seems to have been a right fore foot. At the top of the muddy bank the tracks disappeared into the woodland floor of leaf-litter and pine needles. There were a few small specks of sand to mark where the animal had passed but nothing I could use to follow the trail. It crossed my mind that somewhere in the woods close by the animal may have its holt. I scouted around in a wide semi-circle from the bank - under roots, rocks and piles of brush but found nothing. Back on the river the Dipper was still flying from rock to rock, keeping a constant distance from me, its quick darting flight a mockery as I lumbered and laboured from rock to rock. After three hours I had gone about a mile – at this rate it would take me another 60 hours to do a first check of all the becks in the forest. It was clear that locating the otter hot-spots was not going to be a quick or easy project but I was pleased that my first trip had come up with results. I cut away from the river, back up into the woods to see what could be seen but quickly decided that Hamsterley Forest on a Sunday in May was not for me. The paths were crowded with bickering families in matching tracksuits, grannies in sun-hats and ramblers with nice clean boots. I must have looked a site as I emerged from the bushes, my trousers wet and dirty from wading up the river and kneeling in the mud, a slight aroma of otter scat hanging about me, because I got some very strange looks from the other pedestrians – as if a man dressed in green and brown clambering up a river cliff was in anyway unusual. On the way back to the car rugged extreme-sports types blasted by on mountain bikes, their sunglasses and helmets making them look like overgrown insects. Half a dozen youths on scrambler bikes roared along the trails and as the broad-tailed silhouette of a buzzard circled slowly in the distance decided that the next time I visit Hamsterley it wouldn’t be on a weekend.

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