This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
When Lutra had attained her full size and strength she was wooed and won by a young dog-otter of her own age, and lived with him in a "holt" among the great rocks of Alltycafn. Now, again, the Hunt arrived in the neighbourhood. It was a lovely morning in May. The sun shone brightly; the leaves were breaking from their sheaths; the birds sang blithely in the trees. Suddenly the otters, resting in their " holt," were awakened by a loud commotion—the sounds of hurrying feet, reverberating in the chamber among the boulders, and then the music of the shaggy hounds, varied occasionally by the yap-yap of the terriers. The noise drew rapidly nearer. Presently a man, in red stockings and vest, blue breeches and coat, and a blue hunting cap bearing an otter's "pad" mounted in silver, poked among the boulders with a steelshod pole. The dog-otter was now thoroughly alarmed. He rushed from his lair, dived straight into the stream, headed through the seething current, and rose in the adjoining pool. Threatened by a hound, he dived again, walked over the gravel, and swam under the gnarled roots of an oak. The members of the Hunt stood watching the bubbles, filled by his breath, as they floated up and broke. The hounds swam pell-mell in hot pursuit, and the otter was forced to turn up-stream. Moving cautiously under the rocky ledges, he regained the "holt," where his terrified mate awaited his return. Sorely pressed, the dog-otter hid close, hoping to baffle his relentless pursuers. But a bristling, snarling terrier soon came down the shaft from the bank. Maddened, and courageous with the fury of despair, Lutra seized the intruder by the muzzle, and, in the combat that ensued, sorely mangled her assailant's Hps and nostrils. Then, as her mate dived out once more and swam down-stream, she also left the chamber. She rose immediately among the surrounding boulders, and hid in the furthest recess. With nostrils, eyes, and ears raised slightly above the surface of the water, she stayed there, unseen and hardly daring to breathe, and, with strained senses watched closely every movement of hounds and hunters.
Fortunately for Lutra, the arch of the boulders below was shaped so peculiarly that the scent of her breath and body was sucked into a cavity and carried downstream, and, passing beneath the stone, mingled, at the raging cataract near the rock, with air in the bubbles formed by the tumult of the waters. These bubbles, instead of bursting, were drawn into the vortex of a little whirlpool; and the keen-nosed hounds, though suspicious, could form no definite opinion as to the presence of a second otter among the rocks. The terrier knew the secret, but he had been put out of action and sent off, post haste, to the nearest veterinary surgeon. Lutra saw her tormentors—some of them of the pure otter-hound breed, some half otterhound, half fox-hound, and others, again, foxhounds trained for otter-hunting — rushing backwards and forwards in the water and on the bank. Another terrier, led by a boy, strained at his leash near the river's brink. Women, dressed, like the men, in smart scarlet and blue, and as ready to wade into the stream as the huntsman himself, stood leaning on their otter-poles not far away. At the fords above and below the "pool," the dog-otter's egress was barred by outposts of the enemy standing and splashing, in complete lines, from bank to bank. Once, in despair, the otter actually tried to break through the human chain; but a hunter " tailed " him for a moment, and then dropped him into the deeper water beyond the ford.
The sound of horn, the shouts of men, the deep-toned notes of great hounds, the shrill yapping of eager terriers, and the splashing and the plunging on every side, almost bewildered Lutra. Fearing to move from her shelter, she floated in the deep basin of the hidden pool beside the cataract, till at last the commotion gradually subsided, and hounds and hunters passed out of sight down-stream.
Lutra awaited her mate's return, but in vain. Not till night did she venture from her hiding place. When, however, the stars appeared, she swam wearily from pool to pool, calling, calling, calling. She explored each little bay, each crevice in the rock. She walked up the dry bed of a tributary brook, and searched among the gnarled roots and the dry, brown grass fringing the gravelly watercourse. She skirted the meadows and the rocks where the hunters had beaten down the gorse and the brambles near her home; thence she returned to the pool. Hitherto she had loved the placid night; to her the stillness was significant of peace. But now that stillness was full of sadness, and weariness, and monotony. The shadows were deep within the gorge; from the distant woods the hoot of an owl mocked her loneliness. She heard no glad answering cry. Still calling, calling, calling, she floated through the shadows, and out into the moonlight shimmering on the placid water below the gorge; but she sought and called in vain.
Lutra spent the rest of that year in widowhood. In consequence of her fight with the terrier, and also because of her grief, her two little cubs were still-born.
Midsummer came, and the shallows were almost choked with weeds. The countryside experienced a phenomenal period of drought, and for weeks the river seemed impure and almost fetid. Night after night, and steadily travelling westward, Lutra took short cuts across country from pool to pool. Late in July she reached the estuary of the river; and for the remaining months of summer fished in the bay, finding there a pleasant change in her surroundings. Once she was chased by some men in a boat, who shot at her as she appeared for an instant to breathe. Quick and watchful, she dived at the flash, and the pellets fell harmlessly overhead. Again she rose, and again she dived just in time to avoid the leaden hail. Then she doubled back towards the estuary, and the baffled sportsmen sailed away across the bay. As autumn came once more she returned to the river, and fed chiefly on the migrating eels that swarmed in the hollows near the bank. Presently, by many a nightly journey, she gained the upper reaches, where she lived, till the following spring, close to her old home.
The winter was long and severe. In January, the fields were buried in snow, the roads were as smooth and hard as glass, and the well-remembered pool beneath the pines was almost covered with a great sheet of ice. At this time another young dog-otter began to show Lutra considerable attention. The village children often saw the pairing otters, for the animals, hard pressed, had perforce to fish by day instead of by night. All night the trout lay dormant under the stones in the bed of the river, and only at noon did they rise to the surface on the lookout for hardy ephemerals that, in a short half hour of warmth, were hatched at the margin of the stream. Lutra and her companion followed the fish, and afforded a rare, unexpected sight as, bold with hunger, they ascended to breathe between the sheets of ice in the pool by the village gardens. At night the otters wandered over the snow, and sometimes visited the hillside farms. There, among rotting refuse-heaps, they discovered worms and insects sheltering in genial warmth. When exceptionally hungry, Lutra and her mate would dig into the chambers of the mole and the field-vole in the meadows, and search ravenously for the inmates. Among the roots of the spreading oaks, the otters found, also, such tit-bits as the larvae of moths and beetles. A starved pigeon fallen from the pine-boughs; an occasional moorhen weak and almost defenceless; a wild duck that Lutra had captured by darting from beneath a root while the indiscreet bird was feeding, head downwards, at the river's brink—these were among the varied items of the hungry otters' food. Life was indeed hard to maintain. And, to crown the misfortunes of the ice-bound winter, Lutra's matrimonial affairs were once more cruelly disturbed: her mate was caught in a steel trap that Ned the blacksmith had baited and laid in the meadows near the village bridge. He had marked the otters' wanderings by their footprints in the snow, and had then matured his plans.
The calamity occurred one morning, just before daybreak, as the otters were returning to the river from a visit to a hen-coop, where they had found an open door and a solitary chicken. The trap was placed on the grass by the verge of the stream. A light fall of snow had covered it, but had left exposed the entrails of a chicken which, by coincidence, formed the tempting bait. Distressed and perplexed, Lutra stayed by the dog-otter, trying in vain to release him from his sufferings. The trapped creature, beside himself with rage and fear and pain, attempted to gnaw through his crunched and almost severed foot; but as the dawn lightened the east, and before the limb could be freed, Ned the blacksmith was to be seen hurrying to the spot. Lutra dived out of sight, and, unable to interpose, watched, for a second time, a riverside tragedy. Her attachment, however, had not been of so ardent a nature that bereavement left her disconsolate. Before April she forgot her trapped friend, and was mated again.
Lutra's new spouse had his home in the tributary stream of a neighbouring valley. So, when the snows had melted and the rime no longer touched with fairy fingerprints the tracery of the leafless boughs, and when Olwen the White - footed had come once more into the valley called after her name, Lutra forsook the broad river in which she had spent her early life, and, with her companion and a promising family, lived contented under the frowning Rock of Gwion, secure in peace and solitude, at least for a season, from the shaggy otterhounds.