By Ros Lilley
We live a few hundred metres from the river in Upper Wharfedale, by the popular Dales Way walking path. We have often wandered about at dusk, when the mammals, especially rabbits and bats, are more evident. And secretly we wished for a sighting of an otter, Lutra lutra. We have failed to spot them on Scottish lochs. We have missed them at RSPB Leighton Moss and YWT Staveley Reserve.
We know there are sightings on the Wharfe. And there are mysterious heaps of cray fish shells on the banks of the river . . .
August 8th, 8.30pm, and we’ve worked in the garden all day. “I’m off to the river. I won’t bother with a camera, it’s too dark.” We both go. As we stand on the bank in fading light, an unmistakable head looms out of the water and
an otter swims towards our bank. Instinctively we run quietly upstream but we don’t see it again. The next day I do take a camera. We make it down to the river in time to see an otter swim across in exactly the same way. This time,
when we creep upstream we find ourselves looking right into its face. And I get pictures to prove it. We see the large circles of water and the straight bubble stream as it swims below the surface. We cannot believe our good luck.
This event changes our habits for the rest of August. Every evening when we are free, we wander to the river in the early evening. Sometimes we are joined by friends and neighbours. We have regular sightings of otter, between 8.15
and 9.00pm. We learn to watch for it coming, sweeping downstream from the bend in the river where the mallards roost. We often see it disappear under an overhanging willow on the opposite bank. Once we watch it climb out of the water onto a rock. Another time it climbs up the bank, under the willow and then out again and swims much further downstream. We learn to recognise its presence by the water patterns in the river as it swims past, even when
we don’t get a good view of the animal. We learn that we are unlikely to see it in our spot when water levels rise after heavy rain. Even when there is no sighting, there is a pleasure to standing in the drizzle in a warm, wet-smelling field in the company of fellow enthusiasts.