Agitation on the pond.  Fear and fury rippling across the water. Ducklings darting in and out of reeds, their mother circling and crying overhead. The swan family on guard, cygnets packed tight between parents, mother hissing, father lunging at the bank, hitting out hard with his beak. Two helpless humans standing by wondering what on earth is up.  

Or down. Ray sees it first; something dark and menacing in the water. I’m not quick enough to make out the head but the body swimming towards us – all glossy muscle and long tail  – is unbelievably, unmistakeably, definitely an otter.

That’s something wonderful, astonishing and unwelcome all at the same time.  Any other time we would think ourselves very lucky to be standing so close to a special and (in some places) endangered species. A good friend writing a book about Scotland’s otters spends long hours in splashy pursuit of them.

But right now we’re anxious protectors of a pond which is a nursery for other young things. In the last two weeks we’ve seen the hatching of seven cygnets, 10 ducklings and at least a couple of moorhen chicks. Until yesterday they were all doing well, happily dabbling about in the warm weather, gobbling up the weed and lining up for the corn we throw on the bank (swans first, ducks when they get the chance and moorhens when no-one is looking).


swan family with seven cygnets

Just about visible, seven cygnets coming to feed

It’s never the idyllic scene that it seems to be. Predators of all sorts lurk in the undergrowth. We’ve grown used to seeing the tiny balls of fluff arrive and disappear within days. We look suspiciously at the heron and watch out for mink. Certainly something is on the prowl as even mature ducks have dwindled over the last few years. Willie, the local gamekeeper, thought otters could be the cause but we didn’t really believe him. We’ve seen the mink several times and only once, years ago, did I wonder if the lolloping shape in shallow water might just be an otter.

This year all was well until yesterday. Suddenly there were just five cygnets and perhaps the otter right here in the water is the reason for at least one of the missing pair.

Otters need to eat 100 grams of fish per hour or so I glean from Wikipedia on the way back to work.  Which means 3-5 hours hunting a day, 8 hours for nursing mothers.  Fish is their food of choice but some also eat small birds and mammals.  They are hunting to live and they are wild, wonderful, playful creatures – the BBC Nature website talks of them making water slides just for fun.  And it’s much more exciting to have native otters than alien mink in our patch of wetland.  But for now I hope they slide away upstream and leave our young things peace to grow.

What happened to the other cygnet? Very sadly we discovered a small grey body had been stuck in the overflow pipe which acts as a flood defence. We can’t blame that on the otter

An earlier brood outgrew the pipe

An earlier brood of cygnets, beside the overflow pipe well out of harm’s way.