Water Dogs

At the beginning of last month, the day after the heavy rain and flooding, I saw an otter. I was crossing a small bridge over one of the tributaries to the Ribble, taking the side route after yet another bridge had been removed or blocked because it had become too dangerous.

As I crossed and looked upstream my eyes were drawn to what, at first, I thought was a tyre. I then realised it was in fact a rump of sleek fur and beneath the water I made out legs and an otter-shape. Thrilled and excited I was torn between the impulses to stay stuck-eyed in this wonderful moment or to try and capture it on the camera of my phone for longevity and unfortunately the latter won out. Having fumbled off my thick gloves, turned my eyes to the screen to enter the pin, and opened the camera, by the time it came into focus, the little hump of the miniature sea monster had all but gone.

I didn’t take a picture at all and, the day after when I returned, the water was much lower – far too low for an otter to swim. I realised the moment I had witnessed had been exceptional, for not often do both heavy flooding and a high tide make it possible for an otter to swim upstream.

Since then I’ve returned to look for paw prints and spraint, but found nothing. I’m guessing I’m unlikely to find anything in areas of the Ribble that might be erased by the tides. Still, I’ve been looking out for other signs such as tunnels in the grass and rolling places. I’m aware the Ribble Rivers Trust have filmed otters on the river and farmland locally.

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This got me researching the natural history of otters and their cultural representations. Otters belong to the Mustelid family, which includes badgers, weasels, stoats, skunks, and pine martens. They evolved 30 million years ago (in contrast to hominids have only been about for 2.7 million years). There are 13 species of otter and those we see in the wild in Britain are European otters (Lutra lutra).

On average male otters are 140cm long and weigh 10kg and female otters are 105cm long weigh 7kg. The females begin to breed at 2 years old and give birth to 2 – 5 pups. The males leave them to raise the cubs alone and they must be taught to swim and catch fish before they leave home after 18 months. They can live up to 10 years but usually only survive for 5 due to the countless dangers they face.

Otters lead liminal lives between land and water patrolling territories up to 40km long. Within a territory they have a number of holts, underground dens formed in the cavities of tree roots or in old fox earths or rabbit burrow, along with resting-places called hovers, and lying-places called couches.

To survive the wet cold conditions they have developed a thick, thermal, waterproof pelt with two layers – an undercoat of short hairs and a top layer of guard hairs totalling 70,000 hairs per square centimetre.

Their metabolisms are so quick they must eat 15 per cent of their body weight a day – 1 1/2kg. Their favoured food is eels because they move slowly and have plenty of fat on them. They also consume fish, shell fish, and amphibians, turning them inside out to avoid the poison on their skins. Ducklings and rabbits are also occasionally on the menu, along with slugs, snails, and dragonfly larvae.

The end product is spraint, which is used to mark their territories, and is renowned for its sweet smell, like jasmine tea. In an otter’s spraint the shells and bones of their last meals can easily be seen.

In the 1960s it was noticed that otters were disappearing rapidly from our rivers – the result of the use of organochlorines and other chemicals that built up in their reproductive organs and left them blind. These damaging chemicals have been banned and since the 1990s efforts have been made to clear up and restore our rivers. This has led to the reappearance of otters on the Ribble with a 44 percent increase being claimed by the Environment Agency in 2011 (although this was the result of an increase in spraint rather than individual otters). The otter is described by Miriam Darlington as the ‘spirit level’ of our rivers – as an apex predator a measure of their health.

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The term ‘otter’ derives from the Old English otor which shares similarities with the Norwegian oter, Icelandic otur, and Swedish utter. It originates from the Proto-Indo-European *udrós ‘water animal’.

In the Norse myths we find a dwarf named Ótr who is the son of the king Hreimdar. Ótr takes the form of an otter and is killed by Loki for his pelt. Hreimdar demanded a large weregild for Ótr’s death – his pelt stuffed with yellow gold and covered with red gold. Loki covered all of Ótr but one whisker, which he was forced to conceal with the cursed ring, Andvarinaut. Afterwards greed for these treasures, known as Otter’s Ransom, brings disaster and death to Hreidmar and his other two sons.

In Welsh the otter is known as dŵr-ci, in Irish as dobhar-chú ‘water dog’, and in Scottish as dobhar or beaste dubh (black beast). These names also refer to a folkloric creature known as ‘King Otter’ who, in Ireland, was half-fish and half-dog and resembled an otter, but was five times as large.

The otter is the central character in the literary classics Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. It appears in poems by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop, and recent books by authors tracking its disappearance from and return to our rivers such as Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and The Otter Among Us by James Williams.

In the Wildwood Tarot the otter is the Page of Vessels and John Matthews claims it is one of the oldest animals in the story of the search for Mabon, but I cannot find his source.

However, on a personal level, his claim relates to my desire to craft an oldest animals story for Mabon/Maponos here on the Ribble (where he was worshiped with his mother, Modron/Matrona, upriver at Ribchester and possibly here on Castle Hill). Beside the river are wooden sculptures of five creatures who I perceive to be ‘the Oldest Animals of Peneverdant’ and they are an owl, a dragonfly, a great crested newt, a trout, and an otter, all vital species within our local ecosystem.

The original story of the search for Mabon ends on the river Severn with Arthur and his men riding upriver on the back of a huge salmon to Mabon’s prison in a House of Stone at Caer Loyw.

Overlooking the Severn is a temple to Nodens/Nudd, ‘the Catcher’, a god of hunting, fishing, water, dreams, and healing. Bronze statuettes of dogs were offered to him in exchange for healing dreams. Nodens has no known associations with otters, but seems to share a kinship with them as a fellow fisher. He is associated with dwarves who might, like Ótr, take otter form. In the reappearance of water dogs on the Ribble, after years of pollution, I detect the healing touch of Nodens’ silver hand.

SOURCES

Environment Agency, “More otters living in the North West
than ever before,” August 2011, http://test.environment-agency
.gov.uk/cy/new/132443.aspx
Nicola Chesters, RSPB Spotlight: Otters, Bloomsbury Natural History (2014)
Miriam Darlington, Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, (Granta, 2013)
Paul and Katy Yoxton, ‘Estimating Otter Numbers Using Spraints: Is It Possible?’, Journal of Marine Biology, (2014)

4 thoughts on “Water Dogs

  1. Greg Hill says:

    I once similarly caught a brief glimpse of an otter on the Teifi estuary when the tide was in – just like a tyre looping out of the water as you say. Quite magical !

    I wonder about John Matthews’ identification of otter amongt the ‘Oldest Animals’, not in Culhwch of course, nor in the independent folktale in Welsh recorded by Thomas Williams of Trefriw in 1594 which features the Toad of Cors Fochno. But the story occurs in the folklores of other countries too, so maybe from one of those?

  2. Tiege McCian says:

    What a magical encounter! Otters really are exceptionally wonderful creatures.

    Concerning otters in Celtic myth: there is the tale of Liban, also known as Muirgein, who gets transformed into a mermaid while her faithful dog becomes an otter when they get inundated by Loch Neagh. Muirgein is also thought to be a counterpart of the Welsh enchantress, Morgan, so maybe there is a shared tradition. Also interestingly, versions of the similar tales of Boann and Sínann in regards to the creations of the rivers Boyne and Shannon both feature faithful dogs as women’s companions.

    Great article, your stuff always makes one think!

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