JUST as no pure stream is
without trout, so no trout stream is without otter. From the river to the
nil it is found. It follows the shifting quarry into the tributaries and up
the feeders. The hill burn, with the dark peaty pools overhung with heather,
is occasionally visited. It crosses the land to the still ditches, swollen
only by heavy rain, or flushed in times of overflow.
Perhaps its home is where a
long cast can just place the tail hook on the shadow of the far side. This
is known in Scotland as a "water." It likes to be within easy reach of the
land, to bring its capture to the bank, to shake its fur free from the
drops, to have its evening gambol on the dry grass. Too shy is it to remain
long in the burn where every boy guddles, and hiding is but scant. Lately,
the hounds were tried on the Kenley, a favourite trouting burn near St.
Andrews, but they will not be taken back. No otter was found, and if one had
been it could not have lived many minutes.
The water yields the proper
distance and proportion of stream and land. Floods eat underneath the banks,
forming dim galleries filled with the music of the passing current, with
grassy projecting roofs fretted and groined, every here and there, by tree
roots. From between the roots the water washes the soil, opening up tortuous
passages to some inner chamber.
So the most powerful and
interesting of our native wild animals passes a life varied and charming,
not without times of stress; its jungle among the sedges of the shallows,
its stronghold the rude islet cut off by the parting of the stream in twain,
its holt the dark chamber reached by the tortuous passage through the tree
roots. The outlet of the field drain is only a retreat when pressed, since a
few yards back it narrows to pipes, and in rain is exposed to sudden flood.
A night feeder, it sleeps out
the day in the shadows. Much as I haunt streams I have not seen one; often I
have heard, and even felt it in the dark, and fished along with it in the
same dim pool, where it rose with its sputtering blow. In its night
habits safety dwells; it has no natural enemies. The rustic bothers not the
otter, for the simple reason that the two are seldom abroad at the same
time. He may try his dog, but where hounds of finer fibre fail, scant
success is likely to attend the effort. If, unhappily for itself, the cur
should come into grips, it will have an ugly quarter of an hour. A master of
the hunt has seen hounds go under in the otter’s jaws, and reach the surface
half drowned and bleeding. One never came up. The stern combatants were
locked in a death knot at the bottom.
With these advantages, the
otter maintains its numbers. If not more common, it is because of some law
of nature, hidden from our eyes, which places a limit on the increase of
wild animals. It breeds in security. The female retires into a holt, often
opening under water. Some obscurity rests upon the breeding. There seems to
be no special season. By the Fifo6hire Eden, a pup was found dead in the
July of this year. In September one was brought by the hounds from a hole in
the banks of the Liddle. Another was left, giving a litter of two. A
huntsman tells me he never knew more than three.
Save for his blow after a
long dive, the otter is in the main a silent animal. A master had to pause a
moment when I asked if he ever knew one make a sound, and then he thought he
had heard a whistle in the evening. Perhaps he is not often abroad after
dark, as the hunt is by day. I have met no night angler who can recall
having heard it. Possibly because of the absorption in the one pursuit, or
that it was mistaken for some night bird. Yet it calls, it may be to its
mate, or to summon its young, or both. And its call is something to listen
for, a voice of the stream, as the piping of the golden plover is of the
moor. With something of the modulated whistle of the buzzard or the kite,
but far more soft, sweet, and musical. Perhaps no sound in nature is
altogether so rare.
Interested persons charge the
otter with depredations on their preserves, which they dc not take the
trouble to interpret, and use trap and gun. The number of such vandals is
decreasing. Some have tried to shield the culprit by saying that he lives on
frogs and other unconsidered trifles. A keeper saw two young otters on a
stone waiting for breakfast. The mother was fishing, and straightway brought
from the burn a good-sized trout, which her pups incontinently fell to
quarrelling about. Interfering, she gave it to one of them, and once more
entering the burn soon had a large trout for the other. Thus fish diet
begins very early in life. What mean the salmon lying along the banks of
streams or shores of lochs with the bite out of the shoulder, which seems to
be all that is taken when food is abundant? Natives who know the habits of
the animal are abroad in the morning to gather the remnants of the night
feast for their own table.
On the banks of Sutherland
streams are found Complete skins of salmon, as though scooped out with a
knife, probably where the otter returned to a second feast, or had a family
of hungry pups to feed. It may be an old otter, less able to fend for
himself than he was wont to be, lived on the leavings of the more vigorous.
Yet Sutherland remains what it has been—the paradise of the salmon fisher.
No otter-haunted stream is ever short of fish, and of game fish, too, which
make ever so much better sport. No true angler grudges a share, but looks on
the otter as an ally rather than a rival. Nor would a life spent in the
search for frogs, or even in the pursuit of the weak and diseased, have
called forth the marvellous dexterity in the water.
Like most game animals, it
probably rejoices in the putting forth of its power, and enjoys the pursuit
as a prelude to the kill. To this end it will choose the fittest, with the
promise of the longest and most baffling chase. It would have no quarrel
with some other creature that kept the fish still fitter. Were speed and
resource useless, half the zest of the day’s existence would be gone. It is
as much a sporting animal as the angler on the shore. It has been seen lying
quite still on the water as though watching for the rise of the salmon after
the manner of a seal. All this prepares it for a further destiny.
Not so long ago otter-hunting
in Scotland rested on the enthusiasm of one man. When unexpectedly he turned
up with his following at some stream—for he had the whole country to
himself, and was a good deal of a nomad—the natives regarded him as an
eccentric. Now there are two important hunts. With the energy of youth the
east of Scotland hunt—of which I shall have more to say further on—has
entered on a somewhat busy life. I hope it may not tire. The old
Dumfriesshire hunt still holds the premier place, if only for its unmixed
pack of hounds.
At least, the otter hound as
we have it now, resembling the truer breed but with certain points—such as
the wiry ears—marking a later cross. A frequenter of the hunt said to me the
other day that he could not make out where the rough coat came from. That
seems to be the chief puzzle. The hound element, the slouching gait, and
long pendent ears are more easily accounted for. The earlier strain seems to
have been from the old English hound. Now there is a little of the look and
much of the temper of the bloodhound. Gentle in the kennel, keen and
bell-noted on the scent, it is the most delightful of dogs.
After an interval, when it
was in danger of dying out, otter-hunting is passing rapidly into the first
rank of sport. It forms a class by itself, with many distinctive features.
It is the only Scottish sport under perfectly natural conditions, with
nothing unreal. Artificiality is the death of Sport. The otter is not
shielded like the grouse, nor kept in existence where otherwise it must have
vanished—furnished with cover, and almost fed like the lowland fox. It has a
domain, furnishes its own larder, finds its own holt, and passes its life
partly in the shade. Otter-hunting is an undeveloped art, amid many that are
played out. It leaves some things yet to be learned and achieved; which is
the spell of all pursuits.
The game is played in a
sympathetic arena. There is the charm of the stream, and the mystery of the
depths; the low ripple, and the long shadows, as in trout and salmon
fishing. There is also the interest in the pursuit of a perfectly wild
creature in its native haunts, with all its inherited instincts in full
play. It is not the contemplative, but the active man’s sport. It is all
that a sport should be, with a quite peculiar spell, an exceeding freshness.
To its votaries it comes as a revelation, opens up a virgin world. Later, we
may see the faces of those who look on.
As yet it is not popular in
the worse sense. One fervently wishes it may never become so— that the
blight of the pseudo-sportsman, who kills everything he touches, may never
rest upon it. He would want to rear the otters in tanks, to put in tame fish
for them to feed on, and not be satisfied unless he bagged three or four
each day. But it has all the elements of a saner popularity.
Fox-hunting is for the few,
and among the few is a mighty sprinkling of pseudo-sportsmen, with
suggestions of a promenade and music. Not every one can afford a horse. But
most people have a pair of legs. The hunting of the mountain fox would be in
the same healthy class, were it adopted into sport.
The peasant may turn aside from the furrow,
leaving the patient horses to drowse away in the idle plough; the urchin
peep over the boulder and forget to go to school. The angler will cast down
his rod to enter into the more exciting play. Eager-faced girls will rush
hatless down the slope from the drowsy life of the farm. The stream-sides
are our eternal right of way; a human path up which all may hurry.
A time of wakening enthusiasm
has been chosen to run full tilt against sport. The croakers are of the
well-known type, who periodically favour us with a Jeremiad. In one of his
acute analyses, Matthew Arnold grouped a certain class as barbarians,
because of their love of outdoor life and field sport. This is really the
fundamental type, although socially it is at the top. Scratch a Philistine,
and you have a barbarian. Only you have to scratch some very deep, because
of the thickness of the moral epidermis. We were all sportsmen once. And may
be again, provided it is sport and not make-believe. It is well we should
be; better far than to be altogether Philistine, all epidermis.
Think of the early start, the
fresh morning, the water churning white round the boulders, barred with the
long morning shadows, the swift run, the black mysterious holes under the
roots. The spray and shadow lie on the spirit for a week—to freshen the
dryness and soften the glare.
Then there is the absolute
fair play. It is ever so much better than a tart benevolence, and lends a
much-needed robustness to an enervated conscience. That lad behind the
boulder may have been peppering a frog, which could not get away; or
torturing a field vole, or crushing a brood of downy nestlings. Compare the
dealings between man and otter, to that of man with man. The hunter, so full
of enthusiasm for playing the game, may have been outwitting a fellow-being
in one of the recognized ways. If but the spray of the streamside were
brought to play, the game of life would be as fresh, interesting, and manly
Were the animal consulted, it
might have less to complain of than its self-appointed advocates. The chase
breaks the monotony, the too dreamy flow of a streamside existence. To be
hunted is just the other side of hunting, and lends the contrast, which puts
a sharper edge on life. Slumbering powers are called into play, to add to
the sum of its activities. The otter, on the trail of the salmon, would be
ever so much poorer but for the otter in its holt, listening to thç hounds
on the far bank, with a track of scentless stream between, and deciding on
the next move.
The Fifeshire Eden is a
water. A long cast reaches the sedges on the far side. The rod commands
every eddy, each swirl round a boulder, or spreading ring of rising trout.
Nevertheless, it is not as other streams are. It is sluggish of temper; it
has no lively moods. Current does not slacken into pool, nor pool laugh into
current; but pool and current are much alike. To its natural faults is added
a certain fitful interference. It is nursed for the many mills. A sluice is
raised and it runs high, a sluice is dropped and it vanishes down the grass
blades. Perhaps no stream in Scotland is so tantalizing as that which runs
along the streak of upper old red sandstone to St. Andrews bay. None with a
greater number of barren days and empty creels.
The flies are of the
minutest. The advice of an old angler is to put on no more than one. The gut
is gossamer of texture. The delicacy of a woman’s with the command of a
man’s must be in the casting hand. Unexciting, if picturesque, is the rough
way down the stream. The drowsing currents, the dreaming pools under the
lengthening afternoon shadows, keep the angler only half awake. The trout
are the dreamers below. The psychological moment is where the Ceres burn
ripples into the main stream, over the fossil fishes of Dura Den—sleeping a
dreamless sleep, aeons on aeons.
There are conditions under
which the stream changes its character, and a new interest is awakened in
the long, still, shaded pools and sluggish currents. The water oozes
out of sight through hidden aisles among the sedges, making its own music as
it flows. The alder looks down at its likeness in a span of sunless water.
The roots of the great white willow groin in shaded galleries to dark
retreats. Rude islets break the channel in twain. By the mill—and mills have
a knack of picking out the most picturesque and strongest parts of a
stream—the lade surges forth into a fretted pool, for the great trout to lie
From a smoothly flowing poem
of idyllic charm the scene becomes instinct with the possibilities of drama.
No longer a drowsy trout stream, it is the haunt of the otter. The low
murmur is broken by a bell-like cry. The loiterer pricks up his ears. The
bay of the hounds makes all the difference.
On a day in July the music
was heard of the anglers who were out. It was an exciting day, with
incidents worth recording. I was absent, but write from the tale of those
who were there. By and by I shall tell of other days when I was abroad with
For a while the Eden was at its rudest. The hounds got on
a darg, and for well-nigh an hour dusted the quarry over an islet. The
spectators are said to have hit the otter with their walking-sticks as it
brushed past. Making all allowance for the excitement, and to some the
novelty of the moment, it is plain that they ought not to have done this,
when it had enough to do with the dogs. That, at least, is not sport; and
until they can control themselves it might be as well that they should stay
away. Nor is it sport so to crowd a hunted animal in a narrow place, that it
has no free play for its instincts or local knowledge.
In their eagerness and curiosity to see, the ladies waded
through the stream. Those who go to a water hunt should be prepared to wade,
seeing that the quarry may be now on one side and now on the other. In this
case the dénouement happened on an islet cut off from either bank. It
was very plucky of them. But when it reached what comes after death their
courage failed, or their delicacy came to the surface, which was also very
proper. Some of the details proved unpleasant after it had ceased to matter
to the otter.
The presence of ladies comes as somewhat of a shock to
our pictures of the form at the distaff and the sampler frame. For my part,
I do not see why they should not take a modified interest in sport, so long
as it is sport, and not butchery. The open-air life of the barbarian has
something to offer to the wives and daughters of the Philistines, who have
dwelt too much behind blinds.
For out-of-door life there must be out-of-door interest.
A country walk is too placid, too uneventful, and is apt to shorten back to
the distaff. Something is needed that will take to wild places at unwonted
hours. The charm of environment is vivified by the chase. Emotion ebbs and
flows with the changing fortunes of the drama. It may even be a ruder way of
taking one out of one’s self or one’s own kind, and awakening an interest in
the world of wild creatures. Anything is better and kinder than
A delight alike in the wit of pursuer and pursued, a
readiness to rejoice alike with the dog in its capture and the otter in its
escape, are all healthy enough, and not necessarily the monopoly of one sex.
It has been said that when a woman does not shrink from pain she learns to
love it, and ceasing to be tender becomes cruel. She lacks that perfect
balance which makes the indulgence in sport safe.
Surely a little leaning to the otter is feminine, and
might tend to counteract man’s leaning to the dog, which is not
sportsmanlike. The love of a bloodless close is surely a higher type than
that which thinks it a barren day on which was no kill. I should be sorry
indeed if any woman struck the otter with a stick or looked on without a
glance of protest. A huntsman’s main duty is to see that space and law are
lent to every hunted animal. In no contest is it considered good form to go
within the ropes, or in any way hamper either combatant. And it is
conceivable that the presence of woman would help in this matter. She might
even stand in the water while mere man blocked the islet paths and helped to
give the otter away to the dogs.
A second otter was started. She did not suffer herself to
be crowded to death. After a few turns over the islet, she took to the
water. A resourceful brute, she showed the chase some of the secrets. She
was game, and kept the hounds at bay among the sedges. Then she made down
the stream, and died in deep water, as an otter should. It was a hounds’
day, and therefore not a barren one. The otter’s turn would come; the
triumph of wild instincts over training.
To those who looked on, that pool where the day’s work
closed will never be the same again. Nor will the Eden regain its old placid
and uneventful flow. The eye will wander from the lazy current where the
trout freshen their gills, and the still water where they fatten, to that
dark hole beneath the bank, the islet stronghold beyond the fretting channel
and the tail of the mill-rush, where the otter comes at even in hope of a
On the stream are three reaches of mammal life. Not
sharply marked but overlapping. The mammals increase in size as do the
divisions of of the water. The banks of the upper reach where play the lazy
wheels of the meal mills are tunnelled by the voles. In the estuary and as
far as the tidal waves come, the seal follows the salmon. And all between,
where the Eden runs the width of a water, is the haunt of the otter.