Otter Encounter on the Torridge

Having not seen a single otter along the River Torridge last year, I was quite keen to try my luck now the water level had dropped after a week of dry weather. There was plenty of evidence of the recent heavy rain, however, with all the driftwood dammed up against the bridges.

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Taddiport Bridge

Otters are incredibly difficult to observe because they are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention being mainly nocturnal. So I made an extra effort to get out onto the water at first light. By the time I paddled off my fingers, despite wearing gloves, were already numb. Maybe not a surprise as it was minus 3 degrees. What an idiot. I certainly didn’t anticipate encountering any other kayakers.

I wasn’t at all prepared to see the first otter which was just around a corner only five minutes into my trip. I was fiddling about with my camera and the otter sensed my presence and vanished. I have learned from experience that if you get too close they just disappear and you will not see them again, no matter how long you wait.

The Torridge is fun to paddle, whether you see any otters or not.

 

Today’s eighteen mile, five hour paddle was as absorbing as ever and I soon found myself in the ‘zone’, paddling along in absolute silence and looking out for the slightest movement on the water or along the bank. The only noise I made was the occasional slurp of a warming draught of coffee. And crunch of an Orange Club.

Seventeen kingfishers, twenty-seven Dippers, five Goosanders, a Woodcock and a possible glimpse of a Mink, and of course I was hoping for another otter.

I looked at all the little patches of sand along the banks as I drifted past, and to my surprise nearly all of them had footprints and little scuffs that I’m pretty sure were otter prints. The owner of the footprints often seemed to have come from out of the water, and some of the tracks in soft sand were clearly webbed, so some were otters for sure. There was hardly a patch of sand without any tracks, so it looks like there’s plenty of them about.

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Otter print (with webs)

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After a couple of hours, along a straight bit of river, there was a big otter swimming in the middle of the river directly towards me. I paddled as fast and as silently as I could to the bank and hung onto a branch with one hand while I prepared my camera with the other. Excellent, it hadn’t seen (or smelled) me.

Video:

 

It worked its way up the river catching a small crunchy snack at every dive. At the end of this next clip I think it can sense my presence so it submerges with hardlyt a splash, and is gone.

Video:

 

I waited for it to reappear but soon gave up because I was getting cold, and I more or less knew it wouldn’t show again anyway.

To my astonishment, half-a-mile downstream was  another otter also fishing in the middle of the river. This one put on a good demonstration of the technique of porpoising.

video:

 

I knew it couldn’t resist climbing out on one of the mini islands to ‘mark’ it, as it drifted downstream away from me, so was ready with camera raised when it did so.

video:

 

This otter was spooked by the whine of a slurry tanker in a field half a mile away, instantly disappearing as soon as the pump started.

Absolutely fantastic, two of my best otter sightings away from the coast of Scotland, and within a couple of minutes of each other.

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Torridge Otter

 

 

 

 

River Torridge: Hatherleigh to Torrington

I like everything  about the River Torridge. It’s a great name, it’s my local big river (although I actually live just over the hill in the Tamar catchment), and it conjures up images of wild places with its link to Tarka the Otter, the novel written by Henry Williamson in 1927. No, I didn’t know the date off the top of my head, I’ve just Googled it.

The seventeen mile section between Hatherleigh and Torrington has so many twists and turns that you have got absolutely no idea of the direction in which you are pointing, and to add to the sense of  adventure some of the tangled woods through which you pass are so dense that they could easily act as cover for a pack of hunting Orcs.

My paddling companion today was Mark and we set off from just below the bridge at Hatherleigh.

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Let’s go!

The water was quite low so there were lots of little gravelly beaches to lure us in for the odd coffee break.

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River Torridge

After Beaford bridge until the outskirts of Torrington (11 miles) there is really very little sign of the existence of humans, apart from the occasional fishing hut several of which look like something out of Hansel and Gretel.

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Beaford Bridge

 

 

 

 

We found a good beach for lunch but we were getting slowly but surely colder so didn’t dither about too long. I got a sandwich blockage in my gullet from eating too quickly but succssfully shifted it with an orange club and swig of coffee.

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Speedy sandwich eating

 

 

 

The wildest part of the entire trip is Long Wood and it important to have a complete noise ban here because there is always the chance of seeing an otter.

 

 

On today’s paddle we didn’t see any otters at all, although to compensate we saw a load of birds: 25 Dippers, 15 Kingfishers, Goosanders and Mandarin ducks and Mark saw what was probably a Mink running along the bank (black and furry!).

Here’s a pic and video clip of previous otter sightings on the Torridge:

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Otter duo

This cub looked like it was thinking about jumping  into my kayak (it was a classic otter day..they seem to love the rain):

 

 

The first weir to negotiate is a couple of miles above Torrington: Lady Palmer weir. We didn’t fancy getting wet so portaged down the face.

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Lady Palmer weir

The second weir is outside the old milk factory in Torrington and is easily shootable using the salmon ladder on the right hand side. Mark makes it look effortless:

 

 

Exit is at Rothern Bridge beside the old railway station at Torrington.

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Exit at Torrington

 

The Sensational South-West Coast (part 1)

Photo montage of assorted pics that have not appeared in any of this year’s blogs. Browse and enjoy.

But first listen to the spooky, deathly, grim reaper-type bell on the excellently named Udder Rock buoy off Lansallos in South Cornwall:

Prinsendam cruise ship in Fowey in May,

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Prinsendam

and an even bigger one, the Europa 2, in early September.

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Europa 2

Superb beach for a tea break. Great Perhaver near Gorran Haven:

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Great Perhaver beach

Gorran Haven, picture perfect Cornish fishing village

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Gorran Haven

but with hot competition only a few miles away in the shape of Mevagissey:

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Mevagissey

Charlie and James speeding in the Gumotex Solar at Maidencombe,

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Charlie and James

while Peggy and Becky cruise under the Torridge bridge:

 

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Peggy and Becky

Paul is a bit further upstream by the Old Bideford Bridge:

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Paul in Bideford

The south Cornwall seals put on a fantastic show:seal 17

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but it’s great to see the less obvious wildlife gems from the kayak seat too:

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Ringed Plover
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Hat-trick of Dunlin

The Eddystone light lures me offshore,

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Eddystone

while the seas down at Land’s End are forever restless:

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Gwennap Head

A rare swell-free spell allowed a bit of exploration along the (usually) savage Hartland heritage coast in North Cornwall.

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Duckpool
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Lower Sharpnose Point
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Hartland Cliffs

Now autumn is knocking on the door, it’s easy to forget how warm and sunny summer was, and how exceptionally clear the sea was this year:

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Tabby seems to be flying

Don’t forget the dazzling dolphins:

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Common dolphins Torbay (in Feb!)

That’s it for now. Part 2 soon.

 

 

 

 

Terrific Torridge

From its confluence with the River Taw at Appledore the Torridge estuary provides nine miles of varied scenery and a really excellent paddle. A big Spring tide will get you within two miles of Torrington.

I’m always a bit unsure about whether you are supposed, or allowed, to paddle on the river above the tidal extremity. I certainly wouldn’t even give it a thought during the fishing season which is the beginning of March to mid-October. I have mixed feelings about all this but if there is a prohibition to paddlers it means that the river is kept quiet and provides a safer and more acceptable home to the Torridge’s number one special creature, the otter, then it can only be a good thing. Otters seem to be very sensitive to human disturbance although I suspect it is actually the dogs who hang around the humans that really spook them. Incredibly otter hunting was only banned in the 1970s.

And there are a lot of otters on the Torridge. It was of course home to Tarka.

You don’t need to venture out of the tidal reaches to see otters. Very early in the morning I have  seen them in the last couple of miles above the bridge at Annery Kiln.

The first stretch from Appledore to Bideford takes you past Appledore shipyard and a load of boat carcases before you pass beneath the new Torridge Bridge and into Bideford. The Old Bridge doesn’t impact on the skyline quite so much.

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New Torridge Bridge
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Old Torridge Bridge

Bideford is an underated town and looks pretty smart on a glassy day.

Upstream of Bideford is one of my regular paddles. And it’s popular with activity groups with good road access from the A386. It’s imperative that you time there-and-back upstream paddles with the tide unless you want to be burning up huge amounts of energy and not actually going anywhere. On a Spring tide high water arrives at the very upper reaches about thirty minutes after Bideford.

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Sit-on-top heaven

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I have had some memorable wildlife encounters here, whether it is families of Swans or Shelduck in the Spring, or a Roe Deer swimming across the river in front of me. Or a peregrine taking a stoop at some Teal.

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Swan Family
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Shelduck Family
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Swimming Roe Deer

p1060199p1060230_01Above the bridge at Annery Kiln the Torridge takes on the look of a freshwater river. Kigfishers attract attention with their piercing whistle, although they seem very wary and never allow you to get too close. This seems true for most of the Torridge birdlife…a bit of a contrast to the birds on the River Thames.

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Annery Kiln Bridge
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Torridge Dawn

Dippers inhabit the extreme upper reaches and bob about on the rocks.

But the Torridge is all about the Otter. They are always very difficult to photograph as they tend to be out in poor early morning light and are often tucked in under the bank.

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Relaxed Torridge Otter
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Torridge Otter

But it is always nothing short of thrilling to see them. If you are watching an otter you are in a very special place. It is about as close to the true wilds as you are going to get, otherwise the otter wouldn’t be there. They are very discerning and picky about where they hang out. And at the slightest wiff of a problem (or even the slightest wiff), they are gone and you do not see them again.

One exception to this. I once paddled round the corner and surprised a big dog Otter on the River Tone. I immediately drifted into the depths of a riverside bush and waited in silence to see if it would reappear. I gently turned my head to detect the source of snuffling from an even denser patch of bush to my left, and saw the otter was in there as well, waiting for me to reappear, or ideally not! That was the day I came of age in terms of otter-spotting……I was beginning to think like one.

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otter plus lunch

Fortunately public enemy number one (or wildlife enemy number one , at least), the Mink , seems to be less common than the Otter.

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Mink
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Beam Weir….not for the faint-hearted