My companion made a fairly passable imitation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream when I told her what time we needed to meet for some otter spotting. I’m not sure pre-dawn was what she had in mind, but Imogen was true to her word and we met in the early hours of a May morning, when most sensible people were still in bed.
Given our heroic efforts to beat the arrival of dawn, we had hoped to be rewarded with decent weather. Instead, it was cold, with the added bonus of a sideways drizzle. We had no choice, however – the two hours before dawn and the two hours after dusk are the best times to spot otters. And it was not as if the British weather was going to deter them. Let’s face it, if you had a coat of waterproof fur that was 200 times denser than the hair on a human head, you’d laugh in the face of a bit of rain.
On the plus side, and in spite of the cloud, the fading moon lit our way across the common, the yellow flag irises, thrusting sedge grasses and buttercups faintly discernible alongside the path. Ahead of us was the bending river – a wide, shallow, silver ribbon – the banks marked with deep, muddy ditches where the cattle come to graze and drink – the name Chilbolton Cow Common is as relevant today as it was in medieval times.
A sense of scale
Otters breed all year round and you are as likely to see one in the depths of winter as you are at the height of summer. For me, that is their fascination – they are constantly among us, but such is their private nature that we rarely see them. It is remarkable when you consider they are the UK’s largest semi-aquatic mammal. An adult otter will easily tip the scales at 11kg, measuring well over a metre in length from nose to rudder, as otter aficionados like to call the tail.
As we turn downriver off the well-trodden Test Way, the going gets tougher. The cattle haven’t made it easy for us. You need well-fitted wellingtons for the boot-engulfing mires, an ability to take uneven ground in your stride and an acceptance that you will return home with muddy trousers. But that’s the price you pay for venturing into otter territory.
Twenty-five years ago, this walk would have been pointless. The English otter population was on the brink of extinction after half a century of agricultural chemicals leaching into the rivers and polluting the food chain. Thankfully, following the ban of these chemicals in the early 1990s, water quality increased and the slow-road to recovery began. Fish populations returned to the rivers and lakes, and as a result you are more likely to see an otter today than at any time in the past sixty years.
Signs of life
It doesn’t take long for us to come across the first signs. Otters are a great help to anyone who wishes to track them as they are creatures of habit and follow the same routes, travelling as much on land as they do in water.
Crouching down beside the riverbank, I use a torch to point out a muddy, semi-circular slide into the river, the wet dirt embedded with five-clawed footprints where the otters have hauled themselves in and out of the water. Otter droppings, or spraints, are often used to mark territory. We spot some, telling us that that they were here recently, no longer than a day ago.
Imogen was evidently worried about me using a torch, but she needn’t have been. As long as it is used discreetly, the bright light won’t spook otters; they are notoriously short-sighted. However, we both keep really quiet and talk only in whispers – otters have acute hearing. Similarly, I don’t worry about the sound of our squelching feet – these creatures are used to the cattle creating a similar commotion.
Our progress is slow, but deliberately so because otters, whether they are a lone dog (male) or a mother with pups, travel many miles in a night. Chasing them down is a pointless affair. You are better off finding their regular routes and hoping your paths cross.
A burst of life
In all likelihood, you’ll hear an otter before you see one, so we mostly wait and listen. The ancient sedge grass tussocks make comfortable seats as we watch the sky turn from gunmetal grey to pinkish silver – dawn is here. The rain gradually fades to nothing. A barn owl takes a last turn above the common in search of unwary prey. And then suddenly, from somewhere upriver, there comes a raspy cough. I signal to Imogen to keep quiet, motioning towards the river as the cough gives way to splashing.
All of a sudden, this sleek, dark, wet creature appears – half swimming, half wading – through the shallow water, moving in that strange, lolloping way that otters do as their backs rise then fall with each motion. Opposite us, he or she, I can’t tell which, pops out of the water on to a grassy promontory. Like a cat, the otter busily grooms its fur and paws. After a few minutes, it stops, head still, nose twitching, one half-groomed leg poised in the air.
Whether the otter caught wind of our scent, or the rising sun reminded it of the daytime safety of its holt, I don’t know, but with one fluid movement, it had disappeared into the river.
Retracing our steps in the light of the morning, thoughts of the early start vanished as we revelled in the magic of what we had just witnessed.
Follow in Simon Cooper's footsteps with a walk through Chilbolton Cow Common.
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