Thursday, 24 November 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Otter Diary.

Another little post from the Arran Voice series I am writing.  This one appeared in September's issue.

I’m walking alone at sunset close to my house, binoculars hanging heavy on my neck. The track behind the beach is pitted with the frost encrusted prints of animals and people. Paws, hooves and boots have been strutting back and forth along the lonely shore. I’m looking for evidence of otters, and pause to hunt among the rocks next to a drainage culvert. I find what I’m after, pungent spraint daubed on to a smooth lump of granite. There is evidence of several visits to this messaging post, and I follow the ditch upstream to a thicket of brambles. I look for prints in the muddy bank but find nothing. If an otter came this way, it did not exit the burn at this point, but must have continued to the farmland beyond. I don’t follow. An otter’s holt is a sacred space, protected through secrecy and by law. 
Winter is a great time for watching otters on Arran, as the short days bring their most active hours within reach of a normal human day. There are fewer dogs and people about too. The otter I am tracking today is a female with a young cub in tow. She is naturally shy, but I have seen them in the water from Clauchlands to Corriegills. The cub is only a few months old but already an efficient hunter of crabs and shrimps. I don’t spot them often, but the traces of their presence are left in piles of fishy spraint along the back of the beach above the high tide mark.

Not all otters insist on secrecy.  In Kildonan, a pair of cubs curl up in full view of villagers on a flat rock marooned by the rising tide. It is early spring now, and the sun is warming the volcanic dykes that jut out to sea. This rock is a favourite sleeping place and the young otters, disguised as piles of brown seaweed, doze in peace while their mother forages amongst the surf. Their tidal alarm clock is set- the rising waves lap around them until they wake to foamy splashes. Mother appears, and the family begins a daily ritual of play that must end every siesta. I call this time “Otter O’clock”. I have no idea why this family is so predictable, or why they are less secretive than other otters, but they regularly delight visitors and locals with their bold play in broad daylight.

Feeding Time.
As the Kildonan cubs develop, their presence begins to dominate the coast around the village. Locals tell me they have never seen more otter activity in the area than now. The hungry family spends hours in the water, fishing almost constantly for crabs, blennies and other small morsels. They patrol every sheltered bay methodically, diving again and again with relentless appetite. Lying on their backs in the water, each catch is quickly crunched up before they porpoise down to the sea bed for the next course.

Otters have a rapid metabolism, perhaps to keep warm in cold water.  Like teenagers, they live fast, going through episodes of intense activity, interspersed with vital periods of rest. They must eat well, and prefer small and easily caught meals, tending not to waste energy chasing the bigger prey. Their strong jaws and heavy molars are powerful tools for crushing the hard shells of crustaceans.  Their spraint is packed with the tiny bones of fishes and broken shells of crabs and shrimps. The Kildonan family hunt for several hours a day.

End of an era.
It is midsummer, and all good things must come to an end. The Kildonan cubs are now indistinguishable from their mother. I calculate that they are well over a year old. Recently while the family has been at play I have noticed a fourth otter, loitering a few hundred metres away. Days pass and the intruder is still there, a curious presence in the background. It is a powerful male, and his increasing interest in the family shows that there is a change in the air.  Reluctantly I go away for a week and when I return the favourite rock is deserted.

Now there is a different regime in the village.  A solitary otter fishes the sheltered bays, but it is not always alone. When the large male appears, the two embrace playfully. There is a tumble of shiny brown bodies in the water and a boisterous game of chase begins amongst the rocks and pools. Then, they fish alongside each other for an hour or so, before smaller of the two slips away.

I do not know what has happened to the Kildonan family.  Did the mother drive the cubs away? Did she leave and am I watching one of the cubs playing with the male? Otters are hard to tell apart unless heavily scarred, or as in the case of the male, distinctive by their size. He has a powerful bullish head and neck, his back humped and broad. I wonder if the smaller otter is a female in season.  Only time will tell.

Male otters live a rough life often shortened by violence. Upon leaving the safety of their family they travel long distances, sometimes for years, searching for their own territory. Many die before they find it: in road traffic accidents, in fights with dogs, or at the hands of other male otters. A male may inhabit the territories of several females, the limiting factor on territory size being what he can defend.

Late this summer I witnessed a fight. The violence was undeniable. Canines flashed in the sunlight, and the two screamed their aggression as they tore at each others throats. Even as the loser turned and fled, he was pursued relentlessly through the water at an incredible speed. I wondered if he would get away, and what would happen if he didn’t.  Two years ago a woman from Kildonan found a young male otter with terrible wounds. He was handed to Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Centre, but did not survive his injuries.

New life.
Autumn has closed in around us and the brutal weather has made finding otters hard, but I’m seeing evidence that the circle of life continues. Otter cubs are born throughout the year. The gestation period for otters is short- cubs are born helpless and blind, and are tucked up securely in the den for months. They are too weak at first to play in the currents, and even when they are six months old they will avoid rough weather.  A female with a wild rocky territory in the Southend has a growing cub. They have been very shy through the summer, but as the tourists depart they are becoming easier to find. The cub is increasingly brave in the surf, strong enough now to hunt amongst the rougher breaks. These two still have several months together and I’m looking forward to watching them.

Meanwhile the solitary otter at Kildonan no longer receives the attentions of the male. Fishing expeditions are hurried and businesslike. It works only the best bays and ignores the less fruitful locations. I fantasize that somewhere in the tangle of wooded cliffs there is a waiting family, squeaking and blind, dependent on mothers milk.

Otter Facts:

  • All wild otters in Britain are the species Lutra lutra, although they inhabit diverse habitats, from the coast to lochs and inland river systems.
  • Otter numbers declined drastically during the 20th century due to pollution and persecution. Numbers are now on the increase thanks to legal protection and cleaner coasts and waterways.
  • The greatest threat that otters face in the 21st century is still pollution.  Roads also claim a number of casualties each year, including on Arran.
  • Otters are protected by law.  It is illegal to disturb or harass an otter or damage its holt. For more information see the SNH Website:
  • Arran is one of the best places in the country to watch otters, as it is thought that every stretch of coastline has a resident otter. You will need a good pair of binoculars and patience. Dawn/sunset or a rising tide are the best times of day to see them.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Death on the road

On Sunday morning I was recovering from a wild(ish) night at a fundraiser at the mountain rescue base and contemplating wandering along to the base help with the cleanup when I took a phone call about an injured otter spotted by the side of the road on the west coast. A few hurried telephone conversations later and I was on may way to Blackwaterfoot to pick up the animal for transfer to Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Trust on the mainland.  

As I drove over the hill I wondered how I might effect a rescue of an animal known for its ferocious bite. Hessilhead's advice had been to "fling it gently" in to a wheelie bin. I was relieved to discover on arrival that Angus, a kindly local farmer, and Jim of Arran Birding fame had already managed to catch the otter.  My relief ended when I lifted the lid of the blue recycling bin to see a distressed animal whose back legs and tail hung limp and useless. It didn't look good. 

The otter was transferred to the Calmac guys at Brodick, who ensured he was safely delivered to the mainland for collection by the Hessilhead staff. Sadly the otter succumbed to his injuries that night, despite having quite a bit of fight in him.  The staff at the rescue centre were surprised and sad that he didn't make it. 

I have shed quite a few tears over this little guy.  It seemed like a senseless death for an animal in its prime. This time of year is especially dangerous for wildlife on the roads as the nights draw in and animals have to run the gauntlet of drivers going to and from work in the dark. Slowing down and keeping a lookout for glowing eyes in the hedgerows and verges could save an animal's life, and maybe even that of the driver, as animals as large as red deer can become road casualties and pose a real hazard to vehicles travelling at speed. 

I can't get this death out of my head, and am looking forward to next time I see a happy healthy otter doing its thing- like this one in the very shaky video clip below that I took down at Kildonan a few weeks ago. 

Monday, 7 November 2011

Arran MRT Cir Mhor Exercise

November signals the start of the Arran Mountain Rescue training season and as a probationary member I'm hoping to get out to all the training exercises to get my essential skills sorted. Yesterday we kicked things off with an exercise on Cir Mhor, practicing rope work, lowering cragfast climbers and searching for casualties on steep ground. The conditions were fantastic, with glorious sunshine and at times a cloud inversion.  Where else would you want to be on a Sunday afternoon?
Arran Mountain Rescue are volunteers, and if you would like to support their work you can donate online on their Just Giving Page.

 Our subteam approached via North Glen Sannox.  This is looking north from the ridge towards Lochranza. 

 Some of the team- including Ruby, a Sarda dog based on the island who trains with the team and her handler Darryl. 

 Approaching Cir Mhor from the Castles.

 Looking down in to Glen Sannox

 The team awaiting information about the "casualties" from the summit of Cir Mhor.

 A cheeky raven hoping we will drop some butties. (if we did, he was out of luck as Ruby had them...)

View from high on Cir Mhor, as we approach the cragfast "casualties".

Preparing to lower a "cragfast scrambler" to safety.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Black Cave

If you've ever read up on the Arran Coastal Way you are probably familiar with the traverse of the Black Cave between the villages of Kilomory and Kildonan.  Its the only bit of the Way that is truly tidal, and although in my view not the most challenging section, care and planning are required to avoid problems on the route.  The cave itself is in the rocky cliffs of Bennan Head, a boulder strewn beach lies before it, which is partly covered except at low tide.  In rough weather (common here) it may not be possible to pass at all.

Low tide fell today at about half past twelve, and the opportunity for a leisurely meander over the rocks between the two villages was too good to miss. This stretch of coastline is a real hotspot for wildlife, including otters.  I've been watching otters in Kildonan all summer, but I'm keen to learn more about their territories and so it was with a view to finding signs of otters that I set out.

 A moody sky greeted me in Kildonan, but I knew the forecast was for a bright day.

 It wasn't long before I found clear signs of otters- these prints were on a beach just outside the village. 

 The area is also an important haul-out site for common (harbour) seals, who love the rocky shoreline. 

 Looking towards Bennan Head. 

 I often find badger prints on the beach here, and today I located a badger latrine near the path. 

 Massive tree trunk left well above the normal high tide mark.  Must have been some storm!

 Even in death, the markings on this immature gannet are beautiful. 

 At the black cave.  I couldn't linger here as I disturbed a young otter cub amongst the rocks who ran squeaking in to the sea.  Fortunately I saw it reunited with its mother seconds later. 

 Looking back towards the cave- you can just see the opening on the left.  There is a better picture of this stunning feature here.

The beach opens out again and the going gets easier as you come round the coast to Kilmory.

The final stretch of sandy beach before the track up to Kilmory.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Sgor Gaoith: Mountain of the Winds

Sgor Gaoith (Peak of the Wind) is an aptly named Munro at the western end of the Northern Cairngorms.  It forms a great whaleback that looms above Glen Feshie to the West, with a spectacularly craggy eastern rim that towers above Loch Einich.
Finding ourselves in that neck of the woods last week, on Friday last we picked this windy hill for a quick jaunt before heading south again. The forecast was for gales, and the Gaelic name for the mountain told us what to expect, so we wrapped up warm, and headed up through the forest from Glen Feshie to the ridge. Regular readers will know that I'm a big fan of the ancient scots pine forests that persist on the fringes of the Cairngorms. The woodland on the approaches to Sgor Gaoith was particularly special.

A forest of scots pines.

Heading up on to the open hill, the rich autumn colours of the grasses and heather helped to warm what was a cold and bleak landscape. A golden eagle soared overhead until it began to rain. 

 It was a steady climb above the forest on to the open moor. 

We lost the visibility for a while, and navigated from the bealach of Carn Ban Mor across the plateau to the summit. We soon became aware of a precipice on our right, and in the strong winds did not venture near the edge. The clouds began to lift as the gale increased, and as we began our descent, the views came back. 

 Looking down the descent ridge towards Geal Charn

We descended the long ridge of Geal Charn in a blustering gale before tottering down screes to a pass above the forest.  From here a muddy track lead back in to the forest with ease. Once back in the relative shelter of the woods it was possible to linger and enjoy the autumn colours once more. The birches in particular were just at that golden stage in their leaf that sends tree freaks like me in to ecstasies. 

Amongst the trees again.