Otters

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Otter at Applecross, Scotland

Otters really ‘do it’ for me. Watching an otter is always an absolute thrill, as they are unbelievably difficult to see and are nearly always in an extreme wilderness environment. And kayaking along long stretches of coast or riverbank in complete silence has got to be the best way to see them.

They are largely nocturnal and so the best time to see them is very early in the morning when some are still larking about after a late night out. This suits me just fine as I really like the early mornings.

It is only in the remotest and least disturbed places that otters can be encountered throughout the day. I would estimate that 90% of all the otters I have seen from my kayak have been before 9am. I get the impression that dull damp days encourage them to get out a bit more, and I have rarely seen them in sunshine.

Dogs are otter’s number one enemy, and it is amazing that otter-hunting was only banned in the UK in 1979, although ironically it was the otter-hunters who noticed the catastrophic crash in numbers, due to pesticides, during that era.

Since then the population appears to have recovered, allowing otter watchers like me to have a pretty decent chance of an encounter.

I have been very fortunate to have seen may dozens of otters in the sea off the west coast of Scotland and a handful in the Scottish rivers.

My one kayak trip to the Norfolk Broads proved successful with a decent encounter in Barton Broad.

And down here in Devon and Cornwall the otter population is very healthy. Appropriately the Torridge, made famous by Henry Williamson’s Tarka, seems to have the greatest numbers. It is just perfect for them, with clean water away from any significant town to clutter it up or pollute it , and fifty plus miles of wooded bank and very little access to the public, and their dogs.

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Perfect otter habitat on River Torridge

Torrington is about the only town and that seems to be nice and clean. I have seen an otter quite happily fishing  just below the outflow from its sewage works.In fact the bridges over the Torridge at Torrington and their brickwork and large blocks beside the river seem to attract otters and maybe provide homes for them.

The weirs on the lower Torridge are a magnet for otters and I have seen them eating eels which I suppose are concentrated around the obstacles, as are other migratory fish such as salmon. Beam weir beneath the Tarka trail cycle path is reckoned to be one of the best locations in the country to observe otters.

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Weir on Torridge…..otter heaven

I have also encountered otters fishing in the upper tidal reaches of the Torridge when I have paddled up with the tide from Bideford. Never further than a mile or so downstream of the absolute tidal limit, and never yet in the muddy estuarine area.

The same applies to the river Tamar where I have regularly seen otters, always early in the morning, in the upper tidal section of the river below Gunnislake weir. I have only once seen a dog otter below Morwellham quay a couple of miles downstream of Gunnislake weir (the tidal limit).

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Fat Tamar Otter

I have watched a pair of otters on the river Taw and come across a single dog otter on the River Tone east of Taunton.This was particularly memorable because I silently drifted into a bush beside the bank as soon as I saw it, and then discovered that the otter had done exactly the same thing and was snorting warning calls from the depths of the bush only a few feet away from me.

Only twice have I seen an otter in a proper estuary around the southwest. Recently on the Camel half way between Wadebridge and Padstow, and several years ago near the china clay terminal at Fowey (as usual at dawn).

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Otter on Camel estuary

I have yet to see one in the open sea in Devon and Cornwall but it does occasionally happen and I have seen otter tracks on open exposed beached near Boscastle.

Although guilty of trying to get too close for that classic photograph in the past, my number one aim when I see an otter now is to try to watch it without causing any disturbance to it, and to ‘get past’ without it knowing I was there. Not easy on a narrow river. If an otter detects your presence it will disappear immediately and you will not see it again, apart from the occasional one in Scotland that comes up underneath the seaweed, thinking it is invisible.

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Otter attempting concealment (unsuccessfully)

Otters have an excellent sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight. Or maybe their eyesight is good but they are not too worried about what they see until their smell or hearing send out alarm bells.

I watched one munching its way through a salmon on the bank of the Torridge as I was sitting in my kayak tucked in on the opposite bank, twenty yards away. The otter was quite happy until I reviewed the photos I had so far taken, and the very faint ‘peep’ the camera made as i scrolled through the images caused it to look up and stare hard at me,  even above the roar of the rapids. Fortunately I was downwind, otherwise it could have had a REALLY nasty shock.

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Torridge otter with salmon

Amazingly, and possibly irritatingly, my best and most clear otter photograph wasn’t taken by me at all.

Mid December 2009, and I was sprinting along the canal in Bude in my racing sea kayak. It was just getting light. I thought I was going at quite an impressive lick so was a bit surprised to be overtaken by a string of bubbles at the surface. An otter popped up in front of me and swam to the lock gates to munch a fish it had just caught.

On the spur of the moment I turned my kayak around and sprinted back to my car, left the kayak on the bank, drove 10 miles back to my house Holsworthy, and dashed indoors to wake up my son, Henry, to tell him to come and see the otter and maybe get a photo. Not easy, but he was bundled into the car and we drove back to Bude. I dropped him at the far end of the canal and told him to walk along the towpath to meet me paddling towards him from the other end, so if the otter was still in the canal we would pincer it somewhere between us.

I then drove back to my kayak and paddled off towards Henry, this time definitely going at Olympic speed because I was so excited. After 2 miles flat out, and 2 portages, I found Henry standing on the towpath a few yards from where I had dropped him off. Exasperated that he hadn’t walked along to meet me, he explained that the otter was just where I had dropped him off, and he showed me the photographs. Stunning. Clear and perfect.

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Henry’s otter on Bude Canal

He then wanted me to take him home. All I had to do was paddle 2 miles back to pick up the car…..

I havn’t really got a better photo in the rivers of SW England since. Otters tend to be seen in conditions of poor light and under dark riverbanks, so it’s always a struggle with aperture, shutterspeed and sharpness of image. It’s a bit easier in the open air of the Scottish coast (but not much).

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Dog Otter on Mull

For me seeing an otter from my kayak is just about as exciting as seeing a dolphin way offshore in the summer.

Even catching a glimpse of one is a huge challenge, and for every decent view I have had, I have had many more of a tail disappearing below the surface…and no more.

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Typical view of vanishing otter

However if you are lucky you can see one diving and fishing in the open river a long way ahead, and they are so active that they cause a fair amount of disturbance at the surface, which can be seen from afar. They literally slither through the water and can move amazingly fast. My most recent encounter on the River Torridge involved three otters that were porpoising along in mid river. As they headed off downstream it was all I could do to keep up with them, paddling flat out a couple of hundred yards behind them so I wasn’t detected. I eventually overtook them as they took time out in a riverside bush. they didn’t notice me. Excellent.

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Trio of porpoising otters on River Torridge

When groups are involved, especially families with cubs, my attention has sometimes been drawn to otters by explosive high-pitched squeaks which I think are calls from the adults, and quieter squeaks from the cubs. In Scotland I have heard otters bark a sort of snuffling call when they are uncomfortable about you being there.

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Otter cub

I am never quite so excited to see Mink, although they are significantly rarer than otters. I would guess I see one Mink to every ten otters. Hopefully they will all be trapped and soon be gone as they eat anything that moves, and have single-handedly caused the near extinction of the likeable little Water Vole.

Since escaping, or being released, from fur farms Mink have spread the entire length of the country. I saw a couple in the most remote part of Western Scotland, fishing in the sea (the Mink, not me). When disturbed they have the gall to actually swim towards you to get a better look at who or what is interfering with their routine, staring you out with beady little black eyes.

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Silver Mink
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Brown Mink

So otters very definitely get the thumbs up from me. Mink don’t.

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Close encounter, Kylesku Scotland

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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