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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
The Otter

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 again.

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 in wait.

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 the rest.

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 indifference.

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 big capture.

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.

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