Tuesday, 13 November 2012

An Otter Blog

I promised that I would write a blog about the otters and fisheries conference I went to in Edinburgh, but as I haven’t said anything about otters here before I thought I would start at the beginning.

I have an early memory of my father, who is a keen trout fisherman, showing me an otter kill at the side of a reservoir.  It made a great impression on me, so I must have realised at the time it was something very special (this would have been in the mid to late 60’s when otters were in serious decline).

 As a teenager my fascination grew, I read ‘Ring of Bright Water’ by Gavin Maxwell and then went on to read his other books as well.  I have always been interested in wildlife of all kinds, but never expected to see an otter until I visited Shetland with David, my husband, in the early years of our marriage.  Everyone said they were about, and told us where to see them, but despite walking the shores of the sea loch near our cottage every evening we never came across one.  To be honest, I didn’t have a clue about how to find them or what signs to look out for; I like to think I would be luckier now.

About 15 years, and two children later, on the evening of 24th May 2005, David came home with a very expensive bat detector. I wasn't best pleased but I decided there wasn't much point in making a fuss (I'm very glad now that I didn't).  We rounded up the children and went the local lake to try it out. 

Backwell Lake

 Backwell Lake is next to a busy road near Nailsea and Backwell Railway Station.  It's well used by dog walkers and there are a lot of well fed ducks and swans.  It's also home to six species of bats.  We walked to the bridge at the end of the lake opposite the car park and stood there waiting for the ‘Daubies’ to skim the surface of the lake in their search for insects.  We hadn't been there for more than a couple of minutes when a broad head popped out of the water about 10 metres away from us.  I went through a mental check list. 
‘It’s an otter’, I said calmly, then, as realisation swept over me ‘bloody hell, it’s an otter!!!’  
Almost immediately it headed towards the reeds at the edge of the lake and porpoised silently under the water.  My last impression was the arch of a back and the broad base of a tail.  When we realised it wasn't going to re-appear, we turned round and looked at the stream flowing into the lake.  There was a trail of mud stirred up from the bottom showing where the otter has swum right under the bridge while we had been standing there.

I had absolutely no idea that there were otters in North Somerset, let alone on a lake so close to a town.  Apparently neither had anyone else, no-one would believe me!  Eventually I was put in touch with James Field of The Avon Wildlife Trust.  He told me that Wessex Water workers regularly saw otters on the lake when they made early morning visits, and asked if I would like to join the North Somerset Otter Group.

I trained as an otter surveyor and surveyed a small brook on Nailsea Moor for several years.   I chose it because it was within walking distance of home. I couldn’t believe that such a small stream could support an otter but I found spraint on my first visit.  I grew to love surveying my patch and was over the moon when, on one occasion, I found clear mother and cub footprints under one of the bridges. 

My favourite bridge

Otter Spraint on a Ledge - textbook!

Eventually I volunteered to help co-ordinate the otter group, which was part of the North Somerset Levels and Moors Project.  In 2010, when the funding for the project dried up Kiri, my co-worker, and I decided to try to run the group independently.  It wasn’t easy on our own, but eventually YACWAG, a local wildlife organisation with several reserves near Yatton and Congresbury offered to take us under their wing.

We decided to re-launch as the YACWAG Otter Group.  James Williams from The Somerset Otter Group kindly agreed to speak at our first meeting and over 100 people came.  Forty signed up as surveyors and we ran a series of training events.

First Survey Training Session - Photo Sarah Pitt

We now carry out monthly surveys and cover most of the sites originally surveyed by the North Somerset Otter Group, as well as some new areas.   There are several still water fisheries within our ‘patch’ and it wasn’t long before we became aware that the return of the otter was not without it's problems.  That's why, on Wednesday, Kiri and I found ourselves at the IOSF Otters and Fisheries Conference in Edinburgh. 

Otter Footprint clearly showing five toes, webbing and claws

Friday, 17 August 2012

Jeffery Boswall

I've been reading tributes to Jeffery Boswall, the first wildlife film maker I ever met, and a real local character, it's making me feel rather sad.

I clearly remember the first time I met him at 4am in Towerhouse Wood on a dawn chorus walk he was leading.  He was wearing a traditional raincoat and immaculately polished brown brogues...

My other vivid memory is being interrogated on the phone for about 20 minutes when he heard I had seen a lesser spotted woodpecker in my garden. Once he had established to his satisfaction that I wasn't mistaken he told me that if it ever turned up again I must call him immediately as he had never seen one.

My daughter, who he had a soft spot for and always asked after, considered him to be a kind, but rather eccentric, elderly man.   She was astonished when I told her yesterday just how eminent he was.

Although I haven't seen Jeffery for a long time, I will miss knowing he's there.  I wonder if he ever did find that woodpecker?

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Early Morning by the River

Amazed to find myself wide awake at 6.30am after having stayed up to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony (glad I did) I slipped down to the river with Teazle this morning. It's lovely to get out early as somehow it seems virtuous, and there's no sense of rush.  It's also wonderful to feel so well, long may it last!

It wasn't long before I found myself down on my knees photographing an interesting hole that I hadn't noticed before.  Having found water vole feeding remains by a nearby rhyne a while ago I am sure they must be on the river too. I haven't found anything definitive yet as the banks are very overgrown at the moment, but this hole was a long way up the bank, close to the path, and so visible I wondered how I have managed to overlook it. I had put my keys next to the hole for scale, and was wondering whether it was the work of vole or rat, when my reverie was interrupted by barking.  Not an unusual occurrence! I jumped up to grab Teazle and apologise to the poor dog walker, who was probably just as startled by the muddy woman appearing from nowhere as she was by the black Labrador trying hard to sound ferocious. We chatted for a while, then I walked on.  Fortunately I decided to go back and have another look at the hole, I had completely forgotten my keys and could have quite easily got all the way home before I realised they were missing.  Still not quite sure about the architect - have a look and see what you think.

A bit further on I found a brood of small tortoiseshell caterpillars on the riverside nettles that I regularly fall foul of.  Good to see that the butterflies have managed to bounce back a bit after the atrocious weather, but there still aren't nearly as many around as there should be.

Tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars

'My' otter is obviously still about, but I haven't seen any spraint for ages. It makes me wonder if she is trying to be secretive.  To be honest, although I think of her as a she I don't actually know, it's just a hunch.  I haven't seen her, although a local boy who was grazing his ponies by the river did, about a month ago. From his description she was a relatively small animal (a dog otter can be up to 4' long) but definitely not a mink.  I'm happy for him, it's a wonderful experience for anybody, and I think he was pleased to find someone that believed him, but I still can't help thinking it should have been me...

A rather more prickly teazle

Monday, 2 July 2012

Banded demoiselle

This afternoon I saw a banded demoiselle perched motionless in the wet grass, I held my finger close and the beautiful little insect climbed on and sat apparently unconcerned as I examined it closely. I patted my pocket with my free hand and mentally cursed as I realised I had left my camera at home.

Persistent heavy rain had been followed by fine drizzle and everything seemed to be taking advantage of the slight improvement in the weather.  The buzzards were wheeling over the field below the woods, for once not bothered by crows, and house martins were swooping over the flooded soft rush after invisible insects, or dashing up the river in a manoeuvre that always reminds me of  X-Wing fighters in a Star Wars bombing raid. 

I caught an unmistakable whiff of fresh otter spraint as I walked back towards the broken sleeper bridge.  I had a cursory look to see if I could find it, but the river bank was covered in nettles.  She, I think it's a she, was seen late one evening, a couple of weeks ago, by a young lad who was grazing his ponies nearby, good to know she's still about.  I've heard a lot of reports of otter sightings recently - one day it will be my turn.

Sunday, 1 July 2012


A bright windy afternoon after heavy rain, the river is bursting its banks and Teazle, my black Labrador, is strangely reluctant to follow me into the mini torrent that is flowing across the path at the kissing gate.  She isn't particularly confident with water considering her breed. She loves to wallow up to her chest, but rarely goes any deeper, and avoids fast flowing rivers and waves.

I notice a kestrel hovering over the field by the river. I watch it for a while with my binoculars, hoping that Teazle doesn't take advantage of my temporary preoccupation to wander off and eat, or roll in, something revolting.  It's a rather scruffy looking female, with a couple of tail feathers missing, seeming to have some difficulty holding position in the wind.  I'm pleased to see her. Hopefully she's here to stay, the grass is long so the hunting should be good. I love kestrels and she is the first I've seen here since late winter. In previous years they have been a regular sight, and I always keep an eye out for them.

I turn and walk along the rhyne, resisting the temptation to part the bank side vegetation and look for fresh water vole signs.  I know they're there, and that's enough for me. I'll leave them in peace for the time being and save myself from the inevitability of being stung by hidden nettles. The meadowsweet is flowering, reminding me that it’s the first day of July, hard to believe in this strange weather.

I walk up the path through the growing maize crop to the bottom of the wood looking for fox and badger footprints as I go.  The dog shoots off and I have to call her back and put her on the lead to stop her from trampling over the young plants.

It's surprisingly dark in the woods, the canopy has closed in and the beech leaves have lost the translucence of spring.  Shafts of sunlight pierce the gloom.  I hear a chiffchaff and realise that up to now the wood has been silent. As I listen I hear a few notes from a distant blackbird, it's a while before the song thrushes will start their evening chorus but, for me, it's time to go home. 

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The World Keeps Turning

Sultry day, the strident trill of a wren cuts through the air like a knife.  Banded demoiselles flap lazily by the river or perch on the grass, occasionally taking to the wing for a desultory dog fight.  Had a long philosophical chat with the farmer.  He thinks the land will go to developers, he doesn't want it to happen any more than I do, but he has no choice.  He has worked there all his life and remembers the days when it took five men all night to achieve what now takes him a couple of hours in a tractor, no wonder there are so few jobs.

The house martins are still collecting mud from their puddle, the word keeps turning...

Monday, 25 June 2012

Country Diary of a 21st Century Woman

I am absolutely hopeless at keeping up this blog!  I started out with good intentions, as we all do, but that's about as far as it got.  I think I know what the problem is, I am trying to make it perfect, interesting thoughtful pieces with beautiful well edited photographs.  It just isn't going to happen!  There are so many things that I wanted to say that have been left unwritten because I didn't have time to sit and compose that perfect prose.  Important records have been lost in the Twittersphere or buried in my Facebook timeline - time for a different approach.  From now on I am going to try to write about the things I see as I see them, not wait until my thoughts are finely polished and well illustrated.  If no-one but me reads this it doesn't matter, but perhaps it will help me to remember when I saw the first swallow, and that sometimes (like today) the sun does shine and, just for the moment, all seems right with the world.  Let's see how it goes...

House Martins
I've always loved house martins but I've looked at them with a fresh eye since I read Stephen Moss' description of them as 'little killer whales' - I laughed at first, but I can see what he means!  This morning, while I was walking the dog I took a few minutes to sit on a bridge in the sunshine and watch our local birds collecting mud from the edge of a big puddle by the gate, as they have done every year for as long as I can remember.  They nest under the eaves of the houses just down the road from me and I see them every day in the summer as I walk down to the fields. I would love them to move a couple of hundred yards to my eaves, but it seem that, like me, they are creatures of habit.

View from the bridge