Otters are beguiling creatures and like Miriam Darlington I've been fascinated by them since childhood. Growing up in Shetland there were plenty of them about, even in the darkest days of the seventies and eighties when they had vanished from much of mainland Britain. The thrill of seeing a live otter has never diminished but perhaps the most profound experience I had was with a dead one. Our next door neighbour was handy at skinning things and someone had bought him an otter that had been hit by a car, children are callous little beasts so we had gathered to watch him do the job - and we really were young at the time.
Farming types aren't generally very squeamish so nobody thought this was an inappropriate form of entertainment, it was as gruesome as you might expect, but also educational - what I chiefly remember now is that between pelt and muscle there were perhaps have a dozen balls of shot in various places. That otter had been shot at, perhaps more than once, and that was truly shocking. An accident we could comprehend but the idea that someone would shoot at an otter of all things was utterly outrageous.
Shetland remains a particularly good place to see otters, twenty plus years of protection have increased their numbers and reduced their fear to the point that one of the best places to spot them is next to a busy ferry terminal. The overall combination of clean waters, food rich coasts, and relatively empty spaces to make homes in is obviously just what they need. Early this summer it was announced that for the first time in many years otters have been recorded in every county in Britain, which speaks volumes for the difference protection has made, and also for the improvement in water quality throughout our river network. It's not all good news though - numbers are marginal in many places, new diseases and parasites picked up from cats and ornamental fish are doing their damage, and there's a depressing number of road casualties.
The bad news I've gleaned from 'Otter Country', a book that's troubled me somewhat over the last few days. I wanted to love it, the reviews have been excellent, and theoretically I agree with much of what she says, but I still found myself swearing at this book in frustration. It's a question of style and Darlington does a few things I struggle with; she repeats, which can be a hugely powerful tool in making a point, but when someone uses the word 'water' seven or eight times a page with a good few 'wets' and 'oozes' thrown in I find I can't concentrate, and as it carries on the effect is positively to the point I found myself wincing every time another 'water' appeared. I don't really like similes either and in the end too many things were like other things - a wren creeps like a small brown mouse, a fox has a tail like a bottle brush - I want to know what things are, not what they're like.
Normally I don't persevere with books that I find I'm not enjoying, but I stuck with this one - which in some ways has done it a disservice as I got steadily more wound up. Darlington has some excellent points to make; wetlands are vital, not just to otters, but to our own defence strategy, when it comes to dealing with floods we need somewhere for the water to go, and forget it at our peril. Clean water is also important, the pollutants which affect the otters won't be doing us any good either, and nor is losing a sense of connection with nature.The things I take issue with here are a matter of taste, I prefer something quite pared down and far less lyrical, plenty of others have, and will, love this book for just the reasons I don't and it certainly has something to add to the general debate around how we treat our environment.