Otter Joy

The return of Britain’s otters offers a glimpse of rewilding’s great rewards

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 7th May 2015

I spent last week travelling with my family across the Scottish Highlands, meeting land managers to discuss possibilities of rewilding. The speed of change there is astonishing, and opportunities for a mass restoration of living systems are emerging faster than I could have imagined even a year ago. I’ll be writing about this in a few weeks, when Rewilding Britain is launched.

But for now I want to talk not about the practicalities of rewilding but about its essence: the reason why this idea excites and inspires me so much that I’ve chosen to devote much of the rest of my life to it.

During our tour across the Highlands we stopped for a few days in the village of Shieldaig, at the head of a sea loch on the west coast. We took a cottage overlooking Shieldaig Island, partly because, for the past few years, white-tailed eagles have been nesting there. After becoming extinct in Britain in 1916, this magnificent bird, bigger than a golden eagle, was reintroduced to the island of Rum in 1975. It has been spreading slowly along the west coast. (It could have moved further across Scotland were it not for shooting and poisoning by grouse estates and others). This is one of the species I would love to see returning to much of the rest of Britain.

Unfortunately, the eagles have chosen another place to nest this year. But there were other returning species to see. I woke one morning when it was still dark, and lay in bed until I heard the song thrush in the sycamore behind the cottage start to sing. I slipped out as the light began to rise over the hills.

There’s a path that leads out of the village, winding north over the headlands and around the small bays of Loch Shieldaig. The willow warblers in the trees along the path had started to sing, and from behind the crest of a hill I heard the cry of an unfamiliar raptor – listening later to recordings, I felt it might have been a white-tailed eagle. There was not a tremor of wind and the air was clear. I could see the promontories and islands stepping away for many miles across a polished sea.

As I came over a low ridge, I noticed a disturbance in the water below me, a few metres from the shore. I dropped into the heather and watched. A moment later, two small heads broke from the sea, then the creatures arced over and disappeared again.

After another moment, the larger one – the dog otter – scrambled out of the water with something thrashing in its mouth. He dropped it onto the rocks, gripped it again, then chewed it up. Then the bitch emerged from the sea beside him, also carrying something, that she dispatched just as quickly. They plunged in again, and I watched the trails of bubbles they made as they rummaged round the roots of the kelp that filled the shallow bay.

When they emerged once more, each with a fish in its mouth, I was able to identify the quarry. They were catching rocklings: small, very slippery fish of the same olive-brown as the kelp. Over the next half hour, each of them caught about fifteen. I marvelled at their ability to grab such difficult prey. I loved the slick, swift movements with which they dived and dolphined and twisted underwater. It looked to me like an expression of pure joy.

Hiding among the rocks and heath, I could keep ahead of the otters without being seen, as they foraged round the coast. As the cliffs became lower, I found myself coming ever closer to them. Then, though I don’t know why, the otters emerged from the water without fish, shook themselves out, and climbed up the rocks, long low bodies undulating, towards me. The dog grunted and huffed while his mate made a high whickering noise. They kept raising their heads and staring in my direction. But as I was buried in the heather and they have weak eyesight, I doubt they could have seen me. Soon they were standing about 20 or 30 feet away, raising their bristly little faces to smell the air. I could hear them panting.

Then they turned and rippled back down the rocks, slipped into the water with scarcely a splash and started hunting round the coast once more. Soon they disappeared around a cliff I couldn’t negotiate.

I walked back elated, recharged with wonder and enchantment. A week later, the feeling still buoys me up.

While many species in this country are in rapid decline, the otter is among the few whose prospects are improving. This is partly because it’s no longer hunted, and partly because of a reduction in the organochlorine insecticides that accumulated up the food chain. But, especially in England, it still inhabits just a fraction of its former range.

Otters are an adaptable species that, given the chance, can quickly recolonise the habitats from which they have been excised. Their hesitant return sharpens the hopes of those of us who want a wilder Britain, who strive for the re-establishment of magnificent, enthralling wildlife that you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to see.

Already otters are beginning to appear in a few towns and cities. As they become accustomed to their protected status, they’re likely to become less shy and easier to watch, bringing nature’s wonders closer to the lives of people who have become disconnected from the living planet. If our advocacy of the widespread return to Britain of animals such as beavers, boar and lynx succeeds (and one day, perhaps, of wolves, bison, pelicans, bluefin tuna and whales of several species), the opportunities for re-enchantment will begin to blossom in places that are currently little more than wildlife deserts.

Everyone should be able to experience such marvels, and to step outside the ordered, regulated, predictable world of our own making, that sometimes seems to crush the breath out of us.