Am Bratach No. 309
July 2017

Nature’s call
by Andy Summers

Last week when walking down the River Inver I heard a strange melodious whistle. It was difficult to pinpoint from where it came. I could not think what it was. Perhaps it was a meadow pipit or some other bird? I could hardly believe the noise came from a mammal, let alone an otter, but that is exactly what it was.
There, in the middle of the fast-flowing water, I could see movement as a small bundle of fur rushed down the rapids of the river. The anxious mother was calling in her high-pitched melodious whistle from the far shore. Another otter cub further down the river was calling back in an even higher-pitched tone. My presence, along with Bean the dog, was making the situation worse. The mother otter was trying to keep contact with her cubs as the river threatened to separate them and now there was a potential predator nearby. I wanted to watch what happened next but felt I should get out of there to save them more stress.

It was obvious that this was a mother taking her cubs from their natal holt somewhere in the hills back down to the shore where food was more plentiful. The female otter needs to give birth far away from any male otter, which will often kill the young cubs if they get the chance. Like lions in the Masai Mara, the male can never be sure who is the father of the youngsters and can therefore be quite aggressive. But by mid-June the cubs are bigger, stronger and less vulnerable to the males.

Other than the whistle contact calls of mother and young, otter calls are rare and usually restricted to occasions when one otter meets another in a less than friendly situation. If an animal is cornered by another during a fight, it will produce a very cat-like caterwauling or wailing sound. It can be quite chilling when you hear it in the middle of the night on a dark and lonely shore.

But it did remind me of the time I was called out to an injured otter that had been hit by a car. I quickly checked my book on first aid for animals before setting out. It warned that dealing with injured otters can be very dangerous because they can be very aggressive and have a very severe bite. The book suggested taking a stick in case an otter gets hold of you and will not leave go. The book proposes that breaking the stick can fool the otter into thinking it has broken your bone and it will therefore loosen its grip.

With this in mind, I attended the scene with a certain amount of trepidation, only to find the otter almost at death’s door. I was able to lift the otter and gently put it in a cardboard box and set it on the front seat of the van ready to drive it to the SSPCA. Indeed it was so quiet and limp I did not even secure the box and began the long drive to get it medical attention.

However, perhaps it was the warmth of the vehicle or the Van Morrison song playing on the CD, but the next thing I saw, out of the corner of my eye, was a large male otter slipping quickly out of the box and under the passenger seat of the car. Unsure what to do I decided to just keep driving. After five minutes, while passing Loch Assynt, the otter emerged from under the car seat and, believe it or not, hopped onto my lap. As a large fish lorry was coming in the other direction on a narrow stretch of the road, I did not have time to do anything but keep driving. However, thoughts of the otter’s self-locking jaws did hover in my mind and all I could think about was that I had left the stick beside the road where I had first picked up the otter. After another five minutes asleep on my lap it settled on the dashboard for a while, before finally retreating back under the passenger car seat. I am sure the drivers of the cars coming from the other direction were giving me funny looks as they passed by the ranger van with a live otter lying along the front windscreen.

After arriving at the SSPCA and coaxing the otter into the hands of the waiting vet it was pronounced to be suffering from injuries too severe. Eventually, it had to be kindly put to sleep. But I will never forget that hour I spent in the intimate company of an otter. My only regret is that I never got a photograph, so you will just have to believe my story.

Andy is a senior Highland Council ranger, based at Lochinver.

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