A Whole Lot of Otter

Recently, I experienced a desire to know more about otters. For reasons unknown, their whiskery faces had bubbled up to a more prominent pool in my consciousness. Thumbing the instructions for a new trail cam and staring into the middle distance, I felt compelled to investigate.

Encounters with these animals have an arbitrary quality. I have never pursued them; simply enjoyed those occasions when our paths cross.  As such, otters have seemed mysterious to me. Capricious, even. So armed with freshly honed field skills, I packed my lunchbox and took off for the coast. The weather was fine and fair – the first bright morning following many days of rain.

I don’t generally like to fly my own kite (!) but I have become something of a dropping connoisseur. What was once a passing interest has pupated into an unusual and eccentric obsession. For this we can thank the Aigas Field Centre.

Otters use their spraints as a means of communication, so they are normally deposited in choice locations where the scent will carry and not be erased by the tide. Often, these parcels of fishy fertiliser cause local plants to thrive; sprainting sites will look unseasonably green during the cool months.

Fresh otter poo is dark and crispy, with a sweet musk smell that goes easy on the nose [you heard it here first]. Consistency and composition will vary based on what your otter has been eating. The sometimes-present shards of crab and lobster shell can induce a light clenching in the muscles of the casual observer; try not to let that put you off. If you’re really keen, there’s always anal mucous to look out for too…

I have spent a lot of time looking around our coastline. Once I learned to see, a hidden network of neat grass paths, soft couches among dry vegetation and feeding pools filled with the bloated skins of toads popped up like a picture book. I only had to half close my eyes to imagine a whisky-brown back bounding between the thrift, or turn the page to see it snoozing under a downy of sea campion.

Some days later I went back to check the trail cam. The first video started with a blank screen of reflected infrared and a series of peculiar rustling sounds. Confused, I flicked to the next file.

A bristle of delicate whiskers slid out of the whiteness, followed by the outline of spiky-wet fur and a glimpse of beetle black eyes. A five-toed foot slapped irritably at the camera housing.

The otter was practically glued to the lens.

The stage curtain had lifted, but the taste of victory was bittersweet. I had pried into the life of something wild, and in doing so, caused a piece of its glamour to fall away. Its haunts and habits were exposed, its cover blown. Unwittingly I had become a keeper of secrets.

After all, nothing makes a creature more vulnerable than a GPS map of where it goes to the toilet.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

OtterCam: fully installed and ready to record…