Omen of a Mossy and Spidery New Year

Yesterday I went for a New Year’s Eve walk with a friend around Longton Brickcroft Nature Reserve. The first thing I saw, on the gate on the way on in, was a small patch of moss with a tiny spider stringing a thread between the sporophytes. I think the moss is Creeping feather-moss (Amblystegium Serpens), but I’m not sure about the spider. The presence of palps shows its a male and I suspect it belongs to the Linyphiidae ‘Money Spiders’, likely one of the species impossible to identify without a microscope.

It felt like an omen of a mossy and spidery New Year.

A Mossy Holiday

A two week holiday has given me the chance to start exploring and recording the mosses and liverworts in my local area. Equipped with a x 10 hand lens and the FSC Field Guides to common species in woodlands and gardens, backed up by the British Bryological Society’s Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland a Field Guide, I have made some interesting discoveries and managed to identify more bryophytes than hoped.

I started with my garden and firstly discovered that the moss which is everywhere is Rough-stalked feather-moss (Brachythecium rutabulum) in various stages of growth. It came as no little surprise that Springy turf-moss (Rhytiadelphus squarrosus) is in my lawn. I was excited to find the unmistakable Big-shaggy-moss (Rhytiadelphus triquestrus) on a stony area. The fourth moss, growing in a damp area beneath the shed (which is not on the FSC Field Guides, but I have identified from the key in the BBS Field Guide by its capsules) is Clustered feather-moss (Rhynchostegium confertum).

In Greencroft Valley the most abundant species of moss is Common feather-moss (Kindbergia praelonga). My guess is the acrocarpous moss covering two Elders and seen on the trunks of other trees may be Common smoothcap (Atricham undulatum).

Beside the brook I spotted Common pocket-moss (Fissidens taxifolius) alongside some fascinating plants I cannot name.

I then decided to go to Castle Hill as some of the woodland on its banks is ancient. By the steps up the hill from Well Field, past where St Mary’s Well once was, I found more Common pocket-moss, and Cypress-leaved plait-moss (Hypnum cuppreseforme) on a fallen branch.

On the wall on Church Avenue and on the old stone cross halfway down was the evocatively named Grey-cushioned grimmia (Grimmia pulvinata). It is named after a German scientist called Johann Friedrich Carl Grimm yet, to me, the name ‘grimmia’ is particularly evocative of this unmistakable mossy creature. By this point I had started getting to grips with taking photos through my hand lens.

On a stone on the side of Church Avenue was this unidentified acrocarpous moss.

In Church Wood the most abundant moss was Common feather-moss (here with capsules present).

Another unidentified moss was found on the pathway on the fallen branch of a tree.

Although I didn’t identify as many different mosses as I had hoped to in Church Wood it was a treat to find Great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) on a damp bank.

So far I have been delighted to discover so many mosses within walking distance of my home in a couple of days. I am planning to continue to explore and record the bryophytes of my local area and on the Manchester Mosslands in the New Year.

My Green Chapel

I watch through the window
of the only house on this street not lit 
by party lights, the only one where ivy grows,
the one that seems shrouded by darkness and by sorcery.

The steady sound of hoofbeats has been coming to the North
since before the beginning of time, the beginning of myth,
the court of Arthur, and still he comes, the one we call Gawain.

He does not expect a woman this time crowned in holly and ivy.

He cowers away from the blood-red berries of my eyes 
and averts his gaze from the scars on my arms, 
imagining some distant rite of passage
even I can no longer remember.

I have been sharpening my axe
for a long, long time, waiting for the day
my Lord will no longer have the time to play this game.

I commend his courage, speak of the mathematical percentages
of the people who would take the Green Knight’s challenge,
those who would return to meet their fate.

“You’re the only one,” I laugh aloud.

His eyes are big as portals to the Otherworld. 

One day I will step through them and he will follow.

But not today because the blade of my axe just nicks
his neck, a small cut, which will leave a scar beside the others.

I straighten up with a blood-red stare and send him on his way
because my Lord and I have no more time for games.

Allotment C23

A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook,
tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?

A place to dig, to sow, to watch life grow,
leaving the battlefield and the ravens behind me

like the servicemen returning from the First World War?

Is it time to leave the heroes to be pecked apart
and join, instead, with the labouring poor?

To set aside the books of heroic poetry –
the verses on shattered shields and clashing spears,

the blood and bones to the soil return with spade
and hoe to feed the future generations?

Tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?
A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook

my Bremetennacum Veteranorum as I enter my later years?

As you might have guessed, after a year’s wait, I am finally the proud tenant of an allotment. This has come about after a difficult year during which I’ve felt like I’ve been kicked in the teeth by the universe in many ways, one of them being the landslide on Castle Hill cutting off my access to the yew tree where I dedicated myself to Gwyn on Fairy Lane.

I now feel my gods have gifted me with an alternative. It is happily within a bend of Fish House Brook, which begins near my house and runs through Greencroft Valley, where I run a friends group, before joining the Ribble at Fish House Bridge on the other side of the allotments. In this I see the guiding hand of Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, along with the land spirits and Gwyn and his ‘family’ – the Tylwyth Teg or ‘fairies’.

Whereas I had been considering moving away to find a job in conservation this has led me to decide to remain rooted in Penwortham, even if it means a longish commute. I am beginning a month of cotton grass planting on Little Woolden Moss near Manchester next week, which will be my first paid contract, and a couple of paid traineeships have come up in Bolton, so possibilities are opening up.

Having spent the last decade working with the heroic poetry of the Old North, not least in my latest collection ‘Co(r)vid Moon’ whose main characters are battlefield ravens, I’m sensing a shift away from the medieval courts, where I never belonged with the Taliesins, toward a poetry of the land, to where I belong, alongside other labouring poets.*

Although I’m far from retirement age I see this as a step in maturing and and stepping up to take responsibility for leading a sustainable life as I head toward the big 40 this November.

Since I took this photograph I have been clearing the paths, weeding, digging and putting manure on the beds, and chitting my first early potatoes.

I can now call myself an allotmenteer 🙂

*For example Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald whose work is based on their lived experience of working the land. (Although, of course, I do not claim to be as good!).

Landslip

Fairy Lane, January 2021

Landslip, landslide,
we live in treacherous times,
the very land we hold so dear to us
with the grounds of life as we know it is
being pulled from beneath our feet.

Orange mesh and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs
at the entrances to Fairy Lane do not deter me
slipping by fay-like to bear witness
to another cataclysmic event.

For a long while railings, gravestones,
have been falling away and no-one speaks
of gathering up the bones of the dead.

This has been a place of peace with its
holy well, monastery, church, and chapel,
but has also been a place of penitence.

Black Roger sent to the ends of the earth.

(I sometimes wonder if I am a penitent
and whether I have served my time).

The weather gods have been cruel
this year with their freeze-thaw-rain
dichotomy opening fresh wounds.

The steps leading down to the yew
where I first met Gwyn ap Nudd and to him
made my dedication defying the transcendent gaze

of the Christian God who has never set foot on this earth
(except perhaps in his son whose feet in ancient times
may have walked here in Blake’s poetry)

are now twisted like something out of Labyrinth.

He has thrown my world out of kilter again –
a consequence of being devoted to a wild god…

When I see trees upside-down I think how natural
it is for us to fall whereas trees are born upright
and to go root over crown is certain death.

Yet as we grow older falls hurt more
and we come to wonder which will be the last.

~

I wrote this poem after being called to bear witness to yet another cataclysmic event in my local area. It was three days until the January full moon, on which I made my life-long dedication to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, beside the leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane two years ago. (I made my initial dedication to him at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor on the January moon in 2013.)

It’s a place I visit often, so I was surprised, when I got there, to find orange mesh across the entrance from the A59 and to read a notice stating that the footpath was closed due to a landslip. I walked to the second entrance by the Ribble where, again, I found the orange mesh, but it didn’t extend into the woodland.

Following the intuition that the place was safe now and my gods wanted me to see what had happened I slipped past. Usually the council will fence things off at the tiniest reason. This was not small. It was catastrophic. A whole swathe of land had slipped away from the side of Church Avenue, which runs along Castle Hill – a pen ‘prominent headland’ – shaped a bit like Pendle. It had piled up on Fairy Lane with the debris of huge ivy-clad trees in their prime, fallen root over crown.

Furthermore the steps leading down to the leaning yew had been skewed and looked dangerous.

In some ways, that this had happened, was not a surprise. The whole bank, with its leaning trees, has always looked precarious. There have been landslips before, bearing away railings and graves. Due to falling gravestones the castle mound and parts of the graveyard have been closed off for several years.

There are several reasons for the instability of the land. When the river Ribble was moved five hundred yards south from her original course to run beside Castle Hill, the sandstone bedrock was shattered. The aquifer beneath the hill was broken, leading to the holy well at the hill’s foot drying up. The building of the adjacent by-pass and its vibrations are likely causing the damaged land to slip.

The final contributor to this is the recent weather with its dangerous patterns of freezing, thawing, and heavy rain. No doubt all these factors have come together to cause these landslip.

Yet as well as physical reasons there are spiritual reasons too. The conversion of the hill and well from a pre-Christian to Christian sacred site and the severing of the links between the people and the gods of the land have led to the mindset that makes moving a river, shattering an aquifer that feeds a holy well, and building a by-pass beside a sacred place acceptable. Within a culture that saw the river as a divinity and the hill as the body of a goddess and abode of the dead and their god these would have been seen as acts of desecration that would bring about the wrath of the gods. And so their anger is seen in the decline of this once (and still on occasion) beautiful and enchanting place.

My first thought, when I arrived at the scene, was that this was linked somehow to my Gwyn dedication. Had I done something wrong? Was I on the wrong track? Might it be linked to the series of workshops on Gwyn and his family I am planning with other Gwyn devotees for Land Sea Sky Travel?

I received the gnosis that the landslip had nothing to do with me or my actions and would have happened anyway. I was already in two minds about visiting the yew on my dedication day as I am at my conservation internship on that day and don’t really want to go at night without a friend to accompany me (due to lockdown).

What it means to have the place I met Gwyn and made my life-long dedication cut off I haven’t cogitated yet. It seems to fit with two bridges over the Ribble being declared dangerous and closed. The land, the gods, displaying their anger, the council attempting to protect us, connections being severed.

This event has also made me aware the yew, leaning precariously on an ash, won’t be there forever…

The River Did Not Burst Her Banks

You did not burst your banks today…

River goddess your fearsome torrent pouring
from here to the sea how many times do I have to stand in you,
no, to drown in you, to know you are never the same?

What rites would you have me keep, Riga Belisama, as I walk beside you?

Long have I kept this piece of your humble mudstone close to my heart
(which I must give back should I ever leave), renewed your waters,
lit your candle, created for you a little temple

and cleared Fish House Brook – just one of your dirty daughters
running from one of the estates to the sea.

I have seen your many colours –
red, blue, green, grey as concrete bollards.

What is a river without a goddess or a goddess without a river
meandering, twisting, to the sea, like our own blue blood to our heart?

Sometimes I see you as a goddess but most often you are being a river,
fulfilling your purpose, delivering water, divine water-bearer.

To be one with your flow on days like this is a blessing,
to walk so close to the edge knowing I could be carried away

by your rush of waters, by your rush of deadly words,
but you did not burst your banks today.

I wrote this poem after my daily walk beside the Ribble yesterday during Storm Christoph. Contrary to the flood warnings the river did not burst her banks but came very close, the water lapping at the edge, at high tide. It’s not often we can walk so close to a force of nature, to a mighty goddess, whose might could destroy us if we take a false step – an experience awe-inspiring and humbling.

We were lucky, here in Penwortham, that the river did not burst her banks. Upriver Brockholes Nature Reserve has been forced to close due to the access road flooding. People from Didsbury and Northenden in Manchester, Maghul in Merseyside, and Ruthin and Bangor-on-Dee in North Wales have been evacuated. This must be a doubly awful experience during a pandemic. The combination of the virus with flooding feels like an ominous portent of decline and I fear worse is to come.

The first time I saw major floods on the Ribble was 2015 and she has flooded almost every winter since. In response, the Environment Agency and Lancashire County Council have implemented the Preston and South Ribble Flood Management Scheme, which will raise the current flood walls from 1.2 metres to up to 2.2 metres, with a glass screen at the top so people can see the river, and build new ones.

Some of the trees on the banks, such as the row of elms near the Continental pub, will be dug up to make way for the defences. Five new trees will be planted for each tree removed, but it will be forty to fifty years until they are the size of the original ones. Local people have asked for the old trees to be made into benches.

More positively, some of the area, which is now Preston Junction Nature Reserve, rather than housing, due to the Save the Ribble campaign, is going to be kept as flood plain. There are plans for the creation of a new wetland habitat with ponds with dipping platforms, species-rich wildflower meadows and grasslands, wet woodlands, and orchard trees.

My local stretch of the Ribble, where I have been walking for nearly forty years, is going to change dramatically. How long the defences will keep people’s homes safe I don’t know. As this past year has shown, our safety from the forces of nature, small and large, is very much illusory. The climate and the world are changing. The river will burst her banks again. Yet, on her banks, we find the very first snowdrops, who have weathered the floods. A small sign of hope in these apocalyptic times.

Memories of the Ice Age

Speak to me of dead ice
and glacial erratics.

Tell me the tales
of wandering stones* –

granodiorite from Southern Scotland,
Criffel granite, Shap granite, Eskdale granite,
granite from Loch Doon, Borrowdale volcanics,
Thornton limestone, Chatburn limestone.

Speak to me of glaciers that had no names.

Speak to me not of the death of your children
and how they laid their gravestones
in a ritual long long lost to us.

Speak to me not of your sacrifice in shaping this land.

We must be as stone
and not mourn the snowflakes
vanishing from the palms of our hands.

Outside the office at Brockholes Nature Reserve there is a 2.5 tonne boulder made of grandiorite which was extracted from Number One Pit beside the M6. Unlike the sandstone boulders nearby it does not fit with our local geology. This has led geologists to the conclusion it was transported from the Lake District or Southern Scotland by a glacier during the Last Ice Age 115,000– 11,700 years ago.

This reached its maximum 24,000 years ago and two of the ice advances, Heinrich 2 and 4**, extended to and covered Lancashire and Cheshire, whilst Heinrich 1 and Loch Lomond did not. When the glaciers melted they deposited their ‘suspended load’ of ‘boulder clay’ or ‘glacial till’. At Brockholes the sand and gravel were 20 metres thick leading to the area being used a quarry.

With these materials the grandiorite boulder was removed along with other erratics such as granite from South Scotland, Borrowdale Volcanics from the Lake District, and Chatburn Limestone from Clitheroe. The sandstone boulders near the car park may be local or from Pendle Hill or Longridge Fell.

Near Kirkham and Oldham, where ‘the rate of the ice melt’ was ‘equal to the movement of the ice sheet’ for a long period of time, lines of moraine (accumulations of glacial till), were deposited.

The vast volumes of water from the melting glaciers were also responsible for forging the valley of the Ribble – ‘the meander belt between the river cliffs is too wide to have been created’ by the river.

When dead ice was left behind by glaciers, became surrounded by sediment, then melted, it left kettle holes. This resulted in the formation of lakes such as Martin Mere and Marton Mere and the others that formed Lancashire’s Region Linuis ‘Lake Region’ and some of its numerous ponds.***

Since then we have dug out the sand and gravel and drained the lakes yet new lakes have formed in old pits. Number One Pit at Brockholes, where the grandiorite boulder was found, is now a lake and 182 species of birds have been recorded there including bittern, curlew, lapwing, and sand martins.

The Nature Reserve as we know it has originated from a combination of geological and man-made factors. In the shaping of the land during the Last Ice Age I see the work of Winter’s King and his glacial children. When I touch the glacial erratics or watch birds descending onto the lakes I see his hand.

*The term ‘erratic’ originates from the Latin errare ‘to wander’.
**Heinrich events are caused by the the collapse of northern hemisphere ice shelves and release of icebergs which affect the climate elsewhere.
***Most of the present-day ponds in Lancashire formed in former marl pits dug in the 18th century.

With thanks to Geolancashire from whose Brockholes Geotrail Guide I gained most of this information.

Pondscapes for Great Crested Newts

Over the past year I have been observing with interest within my locality the development of a project run by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and funded by Natural England that aims to create new ponds and improve existing ponds for Great Crested Newts. In Hurst Grange Park, Walton Park, near Dog Kennel Wood, and at Brockholes Nature Reserve I have seen old ponds dug out and new ones created and this is only a small portion of the work that is taking place across Lancashire.

The great crested newt is ‘the UK’s most pond-dependent amphibian’. Since the last half of the twentieth century it has been in decline due to the destruction and loss of the pondscapes it inhabits. Many ponds on agricultural land have been filled in or destroyed because ‘they reduce the extent and crop yield of fields and are no longer needed for livestock due to piped water systems’. More have been got rid of to make way for housing, roads, industry, commerce, and recreation.

Some ponds have been lost to natural succession – if a pond is not regularly cleared of vegetation the dead plant matter builds up and the pond is filled in and dries out. Chemical pollution, nutrification, and the introduction of fish also make ponds unsuitable for great crested newts.

Another factor is the loss of terrestrial habitat – great crested newts favour ‘rough grassland, scrub and woodland’ and need dead wood and underground crevices beneath roots to shelter. Habitat fragmentation caused by human-made obstacles to their movement is another cause of decline.

North West England has ‘the highest pond density’ in England and Wales. Whilst many of these ponds are ‘flooded, abandoned marl pits’ dated to 150 to 200 years ago ‘they are interspersed with ponds of diverse origin’. Some are also man-made such as ‘brick pits, tile pits, pottery clay pits, gravel pits, sand pits, rock quarries, peat diggings, spoil hollows, water mill ponds, bomb craters, saw pits, mine entrances, textile mill lodges, public reservoirs, farm reservoirs, angling ponds, man-made subsidence hollows (flashes)… moats, duck decoys,’ and ‘ornamental ponds’.

Other ponds are much older and of natural origin such as ‘proglacial lakes, meltwater channels, kettleholes, inter-dune slacks, cut-off meanders and ox-bow lakes’ and ‘ancient subsidence hollows’. These could date back to after the Ice Age and have existed for over 10,000 years during which lowland Lancashire was a water country* of marshland, peat bog, reed bed, alder carr, willow scrub, and damp oak woodland interspersed with countless lakes, ponds, and pools – perfect newt habitat.

Great crested newts are one of Europe’s oldest amphibians. They belong to the family Salamandridae. The remains of their ancestors, salamanders, have been dated to the Jurassic (160 million years ago). The great crested newt (Tritutus cristatus) developed as a species 40 million years ago and spent the Ice Age in the Carpathians then expanded its range across the rest of Europe after the glaciers melted.

It is possible to imagine a march of great crested newts moving slowly northwards, much like our ancestors, from pond to pond, crossing the land-bridge of Doggerland, making their homes here in Britain.

The great crested newt is so dependent on ponds because they are central to its life cycle. After hibernating through the winter under dead wood or underground it emerges between February and April and moves to ponds to mate. The male chooses a display area known as a ‘lek’ in an open part of the pond. Displaying his remarkable crest he rocks, leans, and whips and fans his white-striped tail to waft pheromones at the female. Once he has gained her interest, touching his tail with her nose, he deposits his spermatophore, which she collects in her vent before fertilisation takes place internally.

The female lays around 250 eggs in a jelly capsule with a light yellowish centre 4.5 – 6mm long on the submerged leaves of plants, carefully wrapping them with her back legs. Species favoured include grasses such as sweet or flote grasses (Glyceria spp.), small wide-leaved plants such as water mint (Mentha aquatica), and narrow-leaved plants such as water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides).


The larvae hatch and develop in the pond and reach a length of 50 – 90mm before metamorphosing into juveniles known as ‘efts’ who grow up to 120mm in length and leave the pond for the first time. They have all the features of adults – black or dark brown skin with a warty appearance and orange ‘nail varnish’ on their claws, but it isn’t until the second season that the distinctive black patterning on their fiery bellies which marks each as an individual becomes fixed and, upon reaching sexual maturity that the male develops his eponymous crest and white tail-stripe. Males reach a maximum length of 170mm and females 130mm and on average they live for around 14 years.

Ponds are the only food source for newt larvae and and are an important part of the diet of adults, who feed on the tadpoles of frogs and sometimes other newts and invertebrates such as ‘water lice (Asellus spp.), water shrimps, small snails, lesser water boatmen (Corixa spp).,’ ‘fly larvae including the phantom midge (Chaoborus spp)’ and also ‘zooplankton such as water fleas (Daphnia spp)’. They also forage above ground, eating invertebrates ‘such as earthworms, insects, spiders and slugs.’

Most of the foraging activities of great crested newts take place within 250m of their breeding pond. When the juvenile newts disperse they may travel up to 1000m to colonise new ponds and attract a mate. Great crested newts fare best in a metapopulation – ‘a group of associated populations’ who ‘breed in, and live around a cluster of ponds.’ This means there is less threat if one or more ponds are lost.

Thus current conservation efforts are focusing on areas that are already well endowed with ponds in the North West. A whole new terminology, coined by Robin F. Grayson in 1994, has developed around this topic. A pondscape is a ‘landscape with six or more ponds shown on Pathfinder maps in each adjacent 1 km square of the National Grid.’ A ‘core pondscape is ‘where the mapped pond density is 15 or more ponds per 1 km square’. A pondway is ‘a linear tract of pondscape, typically 10 or more km in length’. A pond supercluster is ‘a large tract of pondscape, typically covering 100 square km.’

Pondways have been identified across Lancashire. I was delighted to find out there is a South Ribble Pondway, which is located not only in the borough of South Ribble, but covers a strip 25km long and 5km wide from the estuary of the river Douglas to Brockhall Hospital in Blackburn. Grayson links the end of the pondway with the failure of Northern Drift – sands, clays and erratics deposited by glaciers. There is also a North Ribble Pondway 9km long and 2.5km wide, a Wigan Pondway that links to the South Ribble Pondway in Croston that stretches 50km, and a Fylde Supercluster.

The creation of pondscapes for great crested newts fits well with other projects aiming to restore the water country such as the re-wetting of the drained wetlands around Martin Mere (WWT) and Leighton Moss (RSPB) and peat bogs such as Chat Moss and Winmarleigh Moss (LWT).

As winters become cooler and wetter and summers hotter and drier as a result of the climate crisis, the restoration of wetlands will be essential not only for human needs such as flood mitigation and carbon capture, but as homes for the wetland plants and creatures who are at increasing risk due to human and climatic pressures.

*The area around Martin Mere was known as ‘the Region Linuis’ ‘the Lake Region’ and John Porter refers to the Iron Age Setantii tribe of the Lancashire lowlands as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

SOURCES

Robin F. Grayson, ‘The Distribution and Conservation of the Ponds of North West England’, Lancashire Wildlife Journal, Numbers 2 & 3, (1992/3)

Robin F. Grayson, ‘Surveying and Monitoring Great Crested Newts’, English Nature, vol. 20, (1994)

Tom Langton, Catherine Beckett, and Jim Foster, Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook, (Froglife, 2001)

‘New life to Europe’s oldest reptile and amphibians’, LIFE-Nature Project, (2006)

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.

*

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.

*

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)