Nature Notes

Mercurial, argent: winter chalkstream.


Below the high chalk of the North Wessex Downs, rainwater that has percolated through the porous substrate, flows at a near-constant 10C into benign, gin-clear chalkstreams.

For otters in winter, this is a good thing. And there is potentially a better chance of spotting these elusive, mercurial creatures now: with their super-fast metabolism and evolutionary niche of heat-sapping, riverine living, they must spend much of their time hunting.

I have come down to the river having abandoned a search for hawfinches, somewhat perversely swopping one, hard-to-spot creature for an even harder one. Possibly. But perhaps not this year, when it seems hawfinches are everywhere I am not. I have been haunting churchyard yews, beech hangars and wild cherry holloways, but each time, something has called me away, or the weather has been wrong, the light, lost. I have a creeping, vague feeling I haven’t earned them yet.

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Otters are regularly (and irregularly) seen on the Rivers Kennet and Dun that flow through Hungerford. Much of the river is private, but Freeman’s Marsh is just that: a quiet, oozy gem, a free marsh. I should know better than to go out with the aim of seeing a particular creature, because this is when you’re least likely to see them and are in danger of being blinkered to other wonders.


In an hour I glimpse a water vole buoyantly ferrying a width before vanishing and siskins, redpolls and goldfinches in the alder carr: a jewel-box lattice work of birds. Three times, the small, sodium-orange and teal comet of a kingfisher burns past.
Not so long ago I dreamt every night about otters and thought I saw them in unlikely places. Writing a natural history of them for the RSPB, I felt, for months, as if I had an otter curled up wetly in my brain like a strange hat, leaking river water out over my eyelashes.

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The last otter I saw crunched crayfish on the parapet of the road bridge into town at dusk. It disappeared, pouring itself into water and becoming it, before resurfacing under the feathery skirts of a sleep-floating moorhen. Like a practical joke.

The low sun gilds the marsh and lights the river. A grey wagtail bobs on a raft of water crowfoot, its yellow belly a blob of butter reflected in a river, argent and syrupy.
Then the world turns abruptly graphite; pencil drawn. There is the unexpected hiss as a brief snow shower passes. Its sound is startling, as if someone (or something) has swept by in a long coat. A high piping whistle pierces the babble and hiss. I peer hard at the water: the grainy shape of a flat, broad head floats, followed by the bump of a long rump and the hump of a thick tail, Loch Nessie style. Everything whispers otter, but does not shout it. A ripple twists and firms into fur, that melts into water and is sunk, gone downstream on a long-held breath.

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Photo: Ann-Marie Haggar

This article is a version of one that appeared in the Saturday Daily Telegraph, 20th January.


15 thoughts on “Nature Notes

    • Hello Liz and thank you very much for your lovely comment. Our only wild otter species in the UK is the Eurasian (or European) River Otter, Lutra lutra. Having said that, they are quite happy being coastal otters, too (particularly in Scotland) – and they are wonderful!

  1. An absolutely stunning piece of writing! I enjoyed reading this so much. A sumptuous descriptiveness along with a great ‘story’ that kept me guessing – will she see an otter or not? Cleverly, brilliantly, imaginatively written. Each new post of yours puts a smile on my face.

  2. I’m speechless. That’s one of the most accurate, sensitive, and beautiful pieces I’ve ever read. I started highlighting certain phrases that I thought especially exquisite – but stopped when I realized I’d pretty much highlight everything here!

    This will stay with me for some time, I think. Thank you so, so much. What a gift!

    Do you know this otter poem by Mary Oliver?

    “Almost a Conversation”

    I have not really, not yet, talked with otter
    about his life.

    He has so many teeth, he has trouble
    with vowels.

    Wherefore our understanding
    is all body expression–

    he swims like the sleekest fish,
    he dives and exhales and lifts a trail of bubbles.
    Little by little he trusts my eyes
    and my curious body sitting on the shore.

    Sometimes he comes close.
    I admire his whiskers
    and his dark fur which I would rather die than wear.

    He has no words, still what he tells about his life is clear.
    He does not own a computer.
    He imagines the river will last forever.

    He does not envy the dry house I live in.
    He does not wonder who or what it is that I worship.
    He wonders, morning after morning, that the river
    is so cold and fresh and alive,and still
    I don’t jump in.

    • Thank you so much Austin. Am humbled and pretty much speechless with your lovely comment myself. That will live with me for quite some time – thank you. I also love this poem – thank you for that also!

  3. Hawfinch forays yield unexpected times of profound peace: ancient yews, some there before our beautiful medieval churches, are often in special quiet places. I’ll be happy to go on ‘earning’ my elusive first hawfinches for some time to come.

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  5. What a wonderful piece of writing about a wonderful land (and) waterscape! Love your bookshelf too; I have shelves like that, a tree shelf, a bird and butterfly shelf and a shelf full of poetry books including nearly all of Mary Oliver’s books.
    Can’t believe I’m only finding you now!

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