“Give it a sniff,” they said. “What will it smell like?” I asked in reply, wrinkling my nose at the thought of it…
I suspiciously eyed the dark-grey spraint neatly deposited on a mound of moss that had been carefully scraped together. “Freshly mown hay,” came the answer from one, “Jasmine tea,” from the other.
Yeah right, I thought, gullably getting down onto all fours to bring my face within a few inches of the offensive object. It was around 5cm long, curved and pitted with small bones with scales woven in. It glistened, wet and mucous-y, freshly squeezed out only a few hours ago. Beside it was a narrow path through the dyke-side vegetation, a hands’ width wide, ending abruptly at the dyke itself. Closer inspection would reveal a muddy slide down into the dyke, worn smooth by regular use. But enough delaying, if I was going to smell it I would do it properly. I brought my nose to within a hairs’-breadth of the excrement and inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the – not unpleasant – sweet aroma of fish. A swift retreat and a paranoid rub of the snout, in case I had over-enthusiastically leant in too close, much to the amusement of the two giggling volunteers.
The otter – elusive gold dust of the fen. Rumours circulate, mythical stories of memorable encounters. Many hopeful visitors search for them. Only a few are rewarded with their presence; a fleeting glimpse of their cylindrical bodies, a blur of wet iridescence. A playful master of the water, a subsurface lightning bolt, a bubble trail left in its wake.
If you are lucky, you might catch sight of that sleek head of polished walnut wearing a rounded, whiskered snout, but small, curious eyes will soon spot you. For a moment your gaze will be held. A few seconds will seem like minutes, but there will be no thought, no sense of place or being, just you and the otter locked in a brief moment of wonder. And then it will be gone and you will be snapped back to reality as a dark torpedo shoots away, soon lost from view in its waterscape.
For the most part, we must make do with finding the tell-tale field signs of otters inhabiting the fen. Spraints are found on bridges, logs and mossy mounds. The smell, that “freshly mown hay” fragrance, carries a warning; territories are being declared and guarded and others must keep out. The higher the otter can get their spraints the better the scent and its message will carry. This time of the year on close inspection of muddy areas of path, the five-toed foot prints can be distinguished, often crossing from one dyke to another. It is here that, with a patient wait and more luck, the otter may appear, but more often than not it will await the hours of darkness to go about its business.
The otter is demonised by some, a “ferocious predator” of the waterways, predating all of the fish, ducks, moorhens and anything else it can get its jaws into. An unwelcomed nuisance that “kills for fun”. This stereotype is rather unfair, and the science of ecology can show us why it is not deserved. There is no denying that the otter is a predator of all of the above, but only a fool eats itself out of a home. In an unprotected garden pond, or stocked lake, a Tesco awaits the otter. Like us, it too prefers the easy life. Few of us hunt our food with spear or bow these days. A wild animal acting wild must not be perceived as malicious, we must work with nature and not against it. Should we deem the otter unwelcome in these manmade and managed environments, they can be protected and fenced. It is a cost, but one we all must contribute towards, otherwise the natural world will continue to shrink and suffer.
The otter has hunted the waterways for millennia, long before humans cared to voice an opinion on it. It is as much a part of the food chain and the entire ecosystem as the vegetation, the fish, the birds, and the amphibians.
Although it was clear last year that 3 stunning otter cubs and their parents did not go hungry at Wheatfen (I found plenty of feeding remains), other wildlife still flourished. The waterbodies, dykes, pond, broad and river are still teeming with life. Moorhens became warier, but fledged chicks were numerous. The frogs spawned in their hundreds, with tadpoles in the millions. Shimmering shoals of silvery roach raced up and down the waterways in ever shifting patterns. Aerial insects became trapped and waterlogged, their death-throws luring in surface feeders such as the golden, red-finned rudd. Spring saw agile pike enter the waterways to spawn. These wolves of the water, perfectly camouflaged for ambush, sent the silver shoals scattering. Multiple male pike lurked behind the larger females for a chance to fertilise eggs, but if they timed it wrong, they could themselves become a meal. The warmer days brought the bronze bream shoals to Wheatfen’s broad. Large slabs; the dinner plates of the fish world, they rolled and splashed in the vegetative margins with their large dorsal fins breaking the surface. During this fishy frenzy of activity, the gangly herons stalked with their dagger beaks at the ready. The kingfishers watched from overhanging perches, diving for the sticklebacks. The great crested grebes flipped under, snatching at fish. And the otters hunted the waterways; food in abundance for all.