IF YOU want to see river otters, you will need to get up early and know where to look
There’s a smudge of silver on the wooden path beside the water’s edge. Just a glint on the wet wood and I have to admit I would have stomped right over it, my eyes glued to the water in the hope of an otter sighting.
But Laurie stops and crouches, like a hunter on a trail.
“Fish scales,” he says softly.
He explains, in an almost whisper, that otters will devour small prey in the water but will need to land a big fish to eat it. So fishy remains can be an indication of an otter’s recent presence.
I’m accompanying wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell on his dawn “otter beat” near his Berwickshire home. For more than a decade now, he has documented the return of otters to the Tweed area: crouching in riverbank hides, hanging off bridges, and gleaning sightings tips from walkers, anglers, poachers and bailiffs alike. The resulting work, a detailed study of the lives of river otters, is the subject of a presentation at the WildPhotos nature photography event in London today.
As we make our way through waist-high foliage on the riverside, I soon realise that Laurie sees more than the rest of us. He’ll suddenly swing under a low branch – surprisingly unencumbered by his extensive camera kit – to examine otter dung: a heap of dark squiggles on the moss of a fallen tree. Or he’ll stoop down to check out the “tunnels” of flattened vegetation where the otters have travelled to the river. He’s also alert to clues from other wildlife – if a heron flaps up suddenly, something has startled it.
Over decades of wildlife photography assignments, Laurie had become well acquainted with otters on the coast – Scotland’s islands, sea lochs and remote western shores remained an otter stronghold even when the species was scarce in the rest of the UK. These coastal otters are out and about in the daytime, making them easier to see and photograph. But river-dwelling otters are an altogether different beast. They move secretively in the half-light, easily disappearing into the dense vegetation along the riverbank.
We continue along the Tweed, following the riverside path. “We’re looking for a small, brown head about the size of a Jaffa orange,” says Laurie, and I begin to grasp the scale of the task as we gaze across the wide expanse of surging brown water. In calmer conditions, he explains, you see the “v” shape ripples of an otter’s wake. Sometimes you can plot their course underwater by the trails of bubbles. And other times you hear otters before you see them – the plop as they enter the water, or high-pitched peeping of the calls the mother and cubs make to keep in contact.
“Getting your eye in is everything,” Laurie says. “We’re looking at the water’s surface for anything that goes against the grain, like a sudden splash.”
It feels like the river is taunting me: there are sudden splashes all over the place, rocks appearing like otter’s heads, sticks bobbing downstream flicking up like the tapered tip of an otter’s tail.
I’m willing the rolling water to yield up an otter so I can end this article with a triumphant description of a last-minute sighting. But the rain is coming down heavily now and it’s getting late in otter terms – by 9am they’ve fed and played and looped and splashed and returned to their holts.
So, reluctantly, slowly, we make our way back. We stop on a bridge for one last, lingering glance. But these are river-dwelling otters: they’re elusive, wild creatures and they don’t make appointments with journalists.
The next morning I receive an email from Laurie: “Don’t know how to tell you this,” he writes, “but we just watched two otters near the bridge. It all happened between 6 and 7am. I heard them squabbling beneath the bank, then moving upstream to get a clearer view, I spotted two juveniles porpoising in the rapids…”