Tag Archives: otters

Pilgrimage to the River and the Wild Woods

I spent last week following in the (fictional) footsteps of my heroes: the Mole, the Rat, the Otter and the Badger. I suspect The Wind in the Willows is one of the reasons that, as a child, I first fell in love with wildlife. So imagine my excitement when I realised that the holiday cottage I’d booked was half a mile away from the river that (is said to have) inspired Kenneth Grahame’s classic.

I couldn’t resist spending some of my holiday re-reading The Wind in the Willows. I’d forgotten how lyrical some of the writing about the countryside was, and the strong thread of melancholy that runs through the book, behind the more boisterous adventures of Mr Toad.

The village of Lerryn nestles on a fork of the creek that joins up with the Fowey River. From the village to the next branch of the creek, the river is bound on both sides by woodland.

Lerryn (don't ignore the signs!)
Lerryn (don’t ignore the signs!)

The river itself doesn’t look very water vole-y: the daily inundation of salt water means there’s not a lot of plantlife in the water. But it’s definitely suitable for messing about in boats on, and there are some good hidden picnic spots along the river.

While the river isn’t very suitable for Ratty, it looked perfect for the Otter. I spent my walks along the river looking for confirmation of this hunch – spraint on stones or tree trunks sticking above the edge of the river, or pawprints in the mud. I didn’t find any signs, but it just felt like there must be otters using that stretch of river – it would be a waste not to.

Further inland there were signs of Badger. A well-used animal path even went through the garden of the cottage where we stayed, so I set up my trail camera – more on what footage I caught in a few days…

It was a beautiful place to spend some time, and, once winter is over I’m sure it would be wonderful for messing about in boats (I agree with Ratty on the subject of boats). While I didn’t have as many wildlife encounters as I was hoping for, it felt like there was plenty of wildlife around, hiding in the shadows. I’m sure I’ll be back.

 

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Weasel words (or in praise of weasels)

Weasels have a bad press. Their name has come to mean some sly, sneaky and treacherous. Their most prominent depiction in popular fiction is (together with stoats) as a gang of vicious, mean ruffians, taking advantage of poor Mr Toad’s foolishness to take over Toad Hall.

With their pointy teeth and carnivorous diet, they are certainly fearsome predators, but I think their reputation is rather unfair. If they were bigger, perhaps people would respect them more. The larger members of the mustelid family (badgers and otters) are (generally) regarded with affection. Compare how they’re portrayed in The Wind in the Willows with the poor stoats and weasels. Yet otters are no gentler than weasels.

While weasels are pretty common in the UK, and active both day and night, people are largely unaware of them. I remember being amazed how small they are, the first time I saw one. In fact, a sub-type of the common weasel is the smallest carnivore on earth. The type we get here in the UK measures just 18cm (females) or 22cm (males) in length, and weighs just 70g (females) or 125g (males).

Despite their diminutive size, weasels are effective hunters. Their diet is largely made up of small rodents (voles and mice), but they can also dispatch rabbits. A weasel can run carrying prey that weighs half their own body weight. Pretty impressive.

Last weekend I attended a fascinating course on smaller mustelids, run by the Wildwood Trust. Before now I’ve not spent much time thinking about small mustelids. I was amazed by how little we know about stoats and weasels, which are both pretty common and widespread. This lack of knowledge may partly be down to their poor reputation. The difficulties of surveying them doesn’t help, either.

The limited data we do have suggests that, while they are common, their numbers have been declining in recent decades. They’re not a protected species, so can be trapped and killed by gamekeepers. Secondary poisoning from eating poisoned rats is also a problem, along with predation by cats, foxes and birds of prey. They’re also vulnerable to parasites. Starvation is probably the biggest cause of death for weasels, and they are very dependent on the population of small rodents.

At least now, with the advent of cheaper DNA tests and camera traps, we may be able to find out a bit more about them. I’d certainly love to learn more, as they’re fascinating creatures.

British Animal Challenge: look back at 2014

At the start of 2014 I began a huge challenge: trying to see every different type of British animal in the wild. The list has changed a little bit over the year, but here’s the latest version. It includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In all, there are 107 species.

I’d seen a reasonable number before I started the challenge, but many of the ones remaining are, for one reason or another, tricky. Some are very rare, some restricted to small parts of the UK (including tiny islands), and others are hard to see because they’re nocturnal, or live at sea.

So, what progress have I made this year? I’ve visited different corners of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall and Surrey on my quest, and spent quite a few hours trying to see some of our elusive animals.

New species seen:

And species I haven’t seen, despite several attempts:

In all, I’ve seen 45 species, and still have 62 to go. It’s going to be a busy year next year!

In which I search for otters and water shrews, and find something even rarer

I may not have told you this before, but my favourite British animals are otters. I love them. They’re so good at what they do, and they look like they have fun. But I’ve never seen a Eurasian otter in the wild. So when I found myself in Hampshire with time to spare, I couldn’t resist another go at trying to see some.

Back in March I visited a couple of nature reserves where otters are frequently seen in daylight. They also contain what looks, to my inexpert eyes, like ideal water shrew habitat.  On that occasion I had no luck with either species.

This attempt felt quite different. Rather than a cold March morning, it was a warm, sunny May evening.  The vegetation had grown a lot since my previous visit, and the floods had receded so all the paths were open.

Dr C and I set out on a lap of the first lake, not entirely optimistic as a dog was running loose. Within a few minutes we came to a bridge over a stream crowded with watercress.  Soon Dr C spotted a water vole, which hid before I could join his side of the bridge.  We waited quietly, and it soon re-emerged, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

14 05 25_2796_edited-2

This was only my second sight of a wild water vole, and a much better view. It was only a couple of metres from us, happily eating watercress. I managed to get some photos before it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Water vole Water vole Water vole

Dr C and I continued our lap of the lakes. Sadly there were no otters or water shrews.  But we did see more water voles, including a baby.

Water voles are delightful. They look plump and good natured, manipulating their food in little hands. You can see where Kenneth Grahame got his inspiration for Ratty’s marvellous picnics.

Water vole

We had no luck at the second nature reserve, but left feeling our evening had been well spent, getting such a good view of one of our rarest mammals.

British Animal Challenge: April Update

April has been a bit of a mixed month for me in terms of the British Animal Challenge. Still no luck with amphibians (apart from a few tadpoles), despite dreams of giant toads.

The reptiles course I attended will hopefully help me spot lizards and snakes. As late April and early May are meant to be the best times to see reptiles, I had hoped to see some along the 35 miles of South West Coast Path I walked last week. But I didn’t spot a single scale. Maybe the steep hills distracted me.

I did, however, manage to tick one new species off my list: the Exmoor pony. Not the hardest to spot – they’re pretty large compared to most of the species on my list, and not too shy either. But they are limited to a fairly small (and scenic) geographical area.  I’ll write a bit more about them in the next week or so.

So, what are my plans for May? Well, reptiles are top of my list,  trying to put my new knowledge to use. I’m also hoping to do some newt surveying, and maybe have another go at looking for otters and water shrews.

British Animal Challenge: Looking for otters

When Dr C Senior showed me a photo of an otter, taken in broad daylight a few miles from his house, I couldn’t resist a visit. From what I’ve read about otters, if you want to see them in daylight your best bet is to head to a Scottish island. But Hampshire is a lot more convenient for me, and apparently a family of otters is regularly seen in a nature reserve next to the noisy A303.

So, I booked a day off work, and headed to the in-laws’. Dr C Senior kindly guided me to the reserve and showed me around, pointing out the fishing pier where otters are regularly seen playing.

It was a cold but dry March morning, and there were few other people around, although apparently the otters aren’t that bothered by the presence of dogs and walkers.

Dr C Senior stuck it out for quite a while, before the lure of lunch became too pressing. I stayed on, buoyed by the possibility of seeing my favourite British animal in the wild for the first time. I also had hopes of seeing a water shrew or some amphibians, or even catch a second glimpse of a water vole. But, aside from a hurrying vole (bank or field, I am not sure which) and a few birds, animals were staying hidden that morning.

A helpful fisherman suggested that I try another nearby nature reserve, that otters and water voles frequent. So I took his advice.

This reserve looked much more promising, being quieter and wilder looking. I found some watercress beds in my initial lap of the reserve, so I was hopeful of seeing a water shrew. I also managed to spot some possible otter and water vole signs.

But luck was not on my side that day. After two hours of patient waiting, seeing nothing more exciting than a squirrel and some blackbirds I was chilled to the bone, and decided to call it a day.

It’s not very surprising that I didn’t see an otter. They have large territories, and you can’t predict which bit of their territory they’ll use on a given day.

I was a bit disappointed not to see water shrews. It looked like ideal habitat for them, based on my limited knowledge.

But it wasn’t an unpleasant way of spending the day. It made a change from the office, and all that we walking was good for me.

So you’ll have to make do with a picture of the only otter I did see that day.

Mr Otter