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December 2016 - The End of the Year

I must admit to facing 2017 with feelings of apprehension and helplessness. I try to be kind, considerate and positive. I sign petitions and do what I can to speak out against the many evils in the world but I fear for the future and wonder what life is going to be like for my grandchildren.

We saw most family members in England before Christmas and were thrilled with two concerts where our grandson Josef played a French horn solo as well as conducting the school orchestra.

We didn’t see daughter Ashlyn and family because they were doing a house swap with friends in New York. It is not a place I would want to visit and seeing all the anti-Trump feeling in the city made me rather anxious. I will be relieved when they’re safely back in London.

My 4th letter from Islay - Otters at the bottom of our Garden appeared in The Island Review. theislandreview.com/content/letter-from-islay-otters

Here is the text with my best photographs of a young otter:

One of the joys of our location on Islay is the ever-present possibility of observing otters. I see them fishing in the bay. I know that they shelter in the low-roofed cave at the foot of our cliff, and I watch them emerging onto half-submerged rocks at the bottom of our garden.

Even when I can’t see them, I find evidence of their feeding in broken crab shells and in Aristotle’s Lanterns - the intricate mouthparts of sea urchins. I watch them devouring lumpfish and an occasional eel; but it is the size of some of their catches that really impresses me. The flat fish caught by this youngster was so huge that it fed for forty minutes before slipping back into the sea.

Otter presence is evident in other signs. A trail of flattened vegetation leads through grass and sea campion to the cave, while spraints at the entrance inform me of recent activities.

Black, tarry spraints with a sweet, fishy smell tell of a recent visit; but as they age, spraints become dry and crumbly. Eventually they disintegrate into a scatter of tiny bones, fish scales and bits of crab. When they reach this stage it is obvious that an otter hasn’t been around for a while. At regular sprainting sites the vegetation becomes scorched so that bare patches are not uncommon.

As winter approaches I hope for snow because it is then that tracks alert me to regular otter routes. In compacted snow, otter footprints with an elongated pad and five toes are distinguishable from the rounded pad and four toes of a dog - even when the smallest toe is less pronounced than the rest.

Snowfalls are rare on Islay, but otter footprints can be found throughout the year on both damp mud and firm sand. Such tracks may link the sea to dunes and burns, and sometimes grooves and low tunnels can be traced through long vegetation. These may lead to freshwater lochs, or even, on occasion to the presence of a holt.

During summer, when Islay’s beaches are busy with visitors, ‘my’ otters retreat to more remote locations. My best chance of seeing them is in the evening just as the light starts to fade. But now the island is quiet and days are short. They are back and can be seen at any time of day.

People often ask where they can see otters. On Islay’s coast, the answer is almost anywhere. It’s a case of watching the sea and knowing the difference between a curling wave, a swirl of seaweed and an otter. When an otter dives it tends to be a rapid movement with the tail being the last part to disappear. This helps to separate otters from seals. Seals, unless suddenly frightened, when they do an impressive backflip, vanish in a slow, smooth curve. And when seals come up to breathe, their domed head usually emerges slowly whereas a hunting otter frequently bobs up like a cork.

The secret of getting close to an otter is to keep still when it is on the surface, to move when it is under water, and to ‘freeze’ again when it reappears. Sometimes an otter is so intent on hunting that it may disregard you, but if it takes exception to your presence, it will dive, swim away and emerge out of sight.

Small prey is eaten in the water. Large prey is carried to the shore, the otter keeping its head above water as it swims directly to a landing place. With care, it is possible to anticipate where it is heading, to get close and to take photographs like the ones above without using a telephoto lens.

Otters always excite me, from my first sighting in 1980 to one I saw yesterday. There have been dozens in between – one so close that its wet fur, clumping in dark peaks, was within touching distance – another that failed to notice me as it slept in a seaweed bed. But the biggest thrill of all is in watching a female with cubs and knowing, with certainty, that there are more sightings to come.

We returned home four days before Christmas, just beating the gales, which, once again, disrupted holiday travel. Richard cut a self-seeded Sitka spruce from our garden and we decorated it and spent a quiet holiday on our own.

A walk on Christmas Day rewarded us with sightings of an otter fishing near the lighthouse in Port Ellen Bay and of a very young feral kid. Unable to follow its mother up the cliff it tucked itself into a corner and we took a quick photo before retreating so that the two could be re-united.

2017 will see many changes in the world and there will be some changes for us too - but more of that later. We can only hope that there will be something positive on the horizon.