From Tarka to Ted Hughes, the author chooses the best attempts to capture this beguiling but elusive creature
Humans have always used animals to tell their stories, and children often make their first connection with nature through fables and tales. Tarka the Otter was the moment it happened to me. Then came Ring of Bright Water, and I was smitten.
Recently I decided to set off solo around Britain in pursuit of otter sightings – I'd never witnessed a real one in the wild and my first port of call was the west coast of Scotland where the elusive mammal is easier to see. Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter was the result of my journey, and all these otter stories kept me company along the way.
First published in 1927, Tarka must be the most famous otter ever caught in the pages of a story. The heart-ripping adventure in Williamson's fictional tale tells of a courageous hunted animal. Everything in the story prickles with the otter's-eye-view: Tarka watches the meandering river and listens to its language of sibilant sounds; he plays with the river's "paws of water" and tumbles between its "star-streaming claws". "From his couch of bitten and pressed-down hollow stems, Tarka watched the dragonflies which flew glittering over the water. On a reed beside him was fixed the brittle greyish mask of a nymph… it took the dragonish breath of noon and changed into gleams of scarlet; its eyes grew lustrous with summer fire." Tarka's peace is frequently shattered by the baying of hounds, and his heroism culminates in a dramatic 10-hour hunt where he battles with his terrifying nemesis Deadlock. Anyone who hasn't sprouted whiskers, webs and a tail by the end of this story needs to read it again.
Written years after Tarka but equally sonorous with watery excellence, Hughes's 1960 poem resounds with similar themes and atmosphere. Hughes remarked of Tarka that having read it repeatedly as a boy he felt "it entered into me and gave shape and words to my world". This effect comes through in the lines of Hughes's poem. Its "Underwater eyes, an eel's/ oil of water body," dissolve and remake themselves into a "water-gifted" legend, which "Wanders, cries;/ gallops along land he no longer belongs to;/ re-enters the water by melting". The poem finishes with a poignant warning of the otter's fate at the hands of man, where it "reverts to nothing at all,/ to this long pelt over the back of a chair."
When Heaney published this outstanding poem, Ted Hughes sent him an otter pelt as a congratulatory gift. Interestingly, the poem is about a woman, not an otter, but the object of Heaney's admiration and desire has all the water-gifted qualities of the Lutra lutra clan: "When you plunged, the light of Tuscany wavered/ I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,/ Your fine swimmer's back and shoulders/ Surfacing this year and every year since." Although this loved-one is human, under the poet's amorous gaze she is deeply otter-like in her out-of-reachness: "I sat dry throated on the stones,/ You were beyond me." Heaney's thrilling poetry could inspire any woman to limber up and swap her swimsuit for the pelt of an otter.
Although he was only a pet for a year, the adorable Mijbil is cosseted but devoid of wildness. Maxwell lovingly describes his pet otter's sleek beauty and clown-like behaviour: "He was boneless, mercurial, sinuous, wonderful… he was an otter in his own element and the most beautiful thing in nature I had ever seen." Mij was a rare Smooth-coated otter imported from Iraq to the UK by Maxwell himself. The warning signs came early that otters do not make good pets. Mijbil escaped his box on the aeroplane and created the havoc one would expect of a wild otter in an aircraft cabin. Maxwell endured comedy and domestic chaos for the love of his pet, and seductively described the idyll of their life together before it was brutally brought to an end for Mij with the blunt end of a road mender's mallet.
Edal was the female replacement for Mijbil, and she too was not a native European otter, but this time a Cape clawless otter from the Niger Delta region of West Africa. She could be lovable, but Maxwell recounts that although she had a strong bond with her owner she would fly into a rage at his guests and famously savaged her young keeper Terry Nutkins so badly that he lost two fingers. She lived 10 years with Maxwell at Sandaig, but died when the house was destroyed by fire.
In this children's classic, Otter and his son Portly are astutely portrayed. He complains disapprovingly of the noisy and materialistic behaviour of the other anthropomorphised animals on the river. He possesses one attribute in particular that is very ottery: he frequently disappears mid-conversation with no consideration for manners. Portly, meanwhile, goes missing and a search party has to be drummed up to find him. These well-observed characteristics of otters and their disappearances will be recognisable to anyone who has attempted to watch otters in the wild.
The story of Juggles, a rescued orphan otter. It is a dated but fascinating account by Kelway of her Damascene moment when as a young teenager she flings off her shoes and wades into treacherous depths to rescue the distressed cub as it is being swept downriver. Accompanied by heart-melting photographs, this is an authentic account of a hunter turned otter-protector and gives a charming glimpse of domestic England in the 1940s.
Thought to be the story that inspired Williamson to write Tarka, this is the meticulously imagined and realistic life story of a family of otters in West Penwith, Cornwall. The author was a Cornish naturalist, bard and writer who knew his home patch and its wildlife intimately. This story is brutally honest and gives a clear picture of how otters survived a century ago, living in fear of humans.
One of the best children's picture books about otters, this exquisite story is illustrated with dreamily beautiful dusk and dawn depictions of the North Devon landscape and the winding river Torridge, once inhabited by Tarka. The young otter Flibbertigibbet sets out on a fairytale journey to complete a task which takes him far from home. Read it and be enchanted.
Another warmly delightful and realistically portrayed otter story for children. The Otterley family live happily in their cosy burrow. One day Pa Otterley wakes up feeling dissatisfied and the whole family obediently uproots itself in search of a better home. A revealing fable which uses the otter to demonstrate some of the silliest human behaviour, illustrated by the inimitable Ms Hedderwick.