Wednesday 6 March 2019
Otter Country by Miriam Darlington
Otters have made a comeback across the UK since hunting stopped and our waterways have become clean enough for them to thrive and often outcompete the introduced American mink which severely disrupts our riverine wildlife when it gets the chance. There are otters along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, which I've been lucky enough to see on occasion. So I was eager to read this book when I found it.
Subtitled 'In Search of the Wild Otter' this book follows Darlington around the British Isles as she looks for otters, examines the places where they live and assesses their fortunes.
Unfortunately Darlington is one of those nature writers who seems to think that her reactions to the natural world are more important than the natural world itself. The book often feels like it should be classified as memoir rather than natural history. This may be of course a reaction to the fact that very few otters turn up in the book. They're elusive creatures and in fact their absence in the book needn't be a problem, after all Peter Matthiessen didn't encounter a snow leopard at all in his masterpiece The Snow Leopard. It's just that I feel I've seen more otters in the wild than Darlington has.....
It is a beautifully written book, without becoming self conciously overly poetic as can sometimes seem to be the fashion in nature writing. There are also some wonderful insights into otter life:
'Ash trees are most popular with otters because their roots form a complicated system of shelter below ground, and are often right by or even overhanging the water, so that the otter can slip subtly in or out. An otter may also sleep on a rocky ledgeor tucked away in the reeds. To enter the water they prefer to use points where there is cover - branches or undergrowth - to increase stealth and invisibility.They are good climbers and will sometimes climb up into the hidden shelter of a pollarded willow to sleep. During the day, people, dogs or cattle may walk past unaware that an otter is curled up right above their heads, fast asleep.'
Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, illustrated by Kelly Dyson published by Granta Books (2012)