Islands and otters in the Guardian

robw-illo

I was delighted to contribute a piece to the Guardian’s lovely Country Diary section, about a close encounter with three juvenile otters while camping on the beach on Gigha, a small island off Argyll. Find the article online here, or after the fold. Amusingly it was featured on the Guardian’s homepage under the heading ‘breaking news’. This is the sort of news I like to break best.

Otter pups gambol on the rocks

Isle of Gigha, Argyll The young otters were having a good time, splashing and paddling and roughhousing; we were enchanted

otter eating crab
An otter tucks into crab in the Southern Hebrides, Scotland. Photograph: Ron McCombe/Alamy

Having abandoned our bikes by the gate, we follow a cattle trodden path between walls of bracken down to where field meets sand. The silver slip of a beach is postcard perfect, a flawless bleached-bone white. But close up it is busy with the telltale trails of recent visitors: speechmark hoofprints of cattle and the flatfoot waddle of whooper swans, each webbed imprint as large as my palm.

No people, though, which was our aim. We set up camp upon a grassy flat, and wander along the foreshore, picking through tidewrack and pocketing curios: a mermaid’s purse, torn and discarded, scraps of net, pebbled glass.

The tide is low, so we clamber out along the sharp-edged reef. Layers of schist split and peel like the shell of an oyster, flecked with bright mustard lichen and fragments of crab shell: blood-orange, pink, blue-violet.

The last bit is a scramble. We poke our heads over the top and find ourselves face to face with a wet-black creature about the size and shape of a pine marten. It stops stock still to stare. We freeze too, and after a moment it resumes its business, unconcerned, and scampers off across the rocks. A wave washes in. It dives, and disappears.

But then – there – another. The second clambers from the surf and shakes like a dog. This one is lighter in colour, a milky coffee. And another. I realise we are sharing our rock with three juvenile otters. What a joy!

They seem to be having a good time too, gambolling and climbing, splashing and paddling and roughhousing, tangles of teeth and sodden fur. I recall Gavin Maxwell’s beloved Mijbil: “Boneless, mercurial, sinuous, wonderful … a bird or aircraft in acrobatics.”

These animals are enchanting. We watch for what seems like an age, until I grow greedy and stand for a better view. Mistake. Little black chirrups a warning and they scatter, leaving us alone.

That night we sleep with the tent open. When we wake there is a small bobbing head dipping and diving a hundred metres out to sea. But we have learned our lesson and stay, soundless and still, in our canvas hide.

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