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.
Crouched on a grassy mound beside the rapids, she could see each movement on the surface of the pool. The wild ducks splattered and quacked as they paddled busily hither and thither, visiting each little bay and reed-clump at the water's edge. Sometimes, surrendering themselves wholly to sport and play, they formed little groups of two or three ; and now one group, and then another, would race, half - swimming, half-flying, from bank to bank or from the rock to the salmon "hover" at the lower end of the pool. The otter remembered her experience with the dabchick, and believed that to capture a full - grown duck would tax her utmost strength and cause a general alarm. Once, however, excited by the wild ducks' sport, she slipped quietly from the mound, dived deep, and from the river-bed shot up in the midst of the birds just as they had congregated to settle a point of difference in a recent event, and to discuss a second part of their sports' programme for the night.
As the birds, panic-stricken, scattered on every side, and, following each other in two long lines that joined in the form of a wedge, flew up into the starlit sky, Lutra watched them eagerly for a few moments ; then, without a ripple, she sank below the surface and returned to her watch on the mound. For a while after the ducks had left the pool, nothing could be heard but the ceaseless noise of falling water. But as the night drew on, a moorhen ventured from the shelter of the alders, and, like a tiny, buoyant boat, launched out into the pool. The otter, with appetite whetted by recent sport among the ducks, again left her hiding place and silently vanished into the stream. Borne by the current, she reached, with scarcely an effort, a point in the swirling depths from which she could catch a glimpse of the dim outline of the floating bird. Then, rising swiftly, she gripped the moorhen from beneath, dived across to the "hover," and, having killed and skinned her prey, feasted at leisure.
There were times in the second summer of her existence when Lutra, like the wild ducks, seemed to abandon every thought of the possibility of danger. Simply for the love of exercise and in enjoyment of the tranquil night, she played about the pool till the dawn peeped over the hills; then, tired of her frolic, she sought her secret "holt," and, curling her tail about her face and holding her hind-paws closely between her fore-paws, fell asleep.
While she gambolled in the water, even her quickest movements were as graceful as those of a salmon stemming the rapids and leaping into the shallows above the rock. Diving into the depths, she avoided with scarcely an effort the tangled roots and branches, that, washed thither by the floods, had long been the dread of anglers when heavy fish were hooked. Ceasing all exertion as she turned into the current, she floated to the surface and was borne away down-stream. She swam at highest speed from the tail to the throat of the pool, and drifted idly back to the place from which she had started; then, changing her methods, she skirted c slowly the edge of the current, and with one long, straight dive shot down from the head of the rapids to the still water near her "holt".
From playing thus about the pool, the otter learned the power of the current, and how it hastened or retarded her while she pursued her prey. But most of all, during the hours of the placid night, she delighted to frolic in the torrent immediately below the rock, where, matching her strength against that of the river, she leaped and dived and tumbled through the foam, or, lying on her back amid a shower of spray, stretched wide her limbs and suffered the whirlpool to draw her, unresisting, into its vortex deep beneath the fall.
Lutra sometimes noticed, while she drifted with the current, that the scent of her kindred lay strong at the surface not far from her "holt." One still, moonlit night the scent indicated that several full-grown otters had at intervals come from the trout-reaches down-stream, and had landed in a reed-bed at the lower end of the pool. It led away from the river through the valley, along by a number of stagnant ponds in an old garden near the farm, and thence to a point beyond a bend where the river flowed almost parallel to its course at the pool. As the otter, inquisitively following the line of the scent, came to the ponds, she heard the croaking of countless frogs hidden in the duck-weed that lay over the entire surface of the water. Lutra made ample use of the opportunity for a feast— frogs were the greatest delicacies known to her, and she had never before found them to be so plentiful. Dawn was breaking when, in her onward journey, she reached the river; so she drifted around the bend, dived over the fall, and returned to her home beneath the alder-roots.
It happened that the otters whose "spur" (footprints) Lutra had followed to the frog-ponds retraced their steps towards the pool, and in doing so suddenly discovered that the scent of a man lay strong on the trodden grass. A villager, knowing the eagerness with which otters seek for frogs, and that they often cross a narrow neck of land at the bend of a stream, had for a time kept watch at the lower end of the old farm garden. He was anxious that the hounds, which, on the previous day, had arrived at the village, should enjoy good sport during their stay in the neighbourhood. But he saw nothing of the animals he had come to watch; as soon as they detected his whereabouts they retreated hastily to the pond at the upper end of the garden, gained the river, and, like Lutra, swam homewards around the bend. But, less familiar than Lutra with the strength of the current, they left the water as they approached the fall, and crept through the deep shadows of the alder-roots till they reached a point at some distance beyond the pool.
These events of the night were of the utmost importance to the otters as connected with the events of the morrow. During the early morning the villager paid a second visit to the garden, and examined closely the soft mud at the margin of the ponds. The remains of the otters' feast—the skins and the eyes of frogs—lay in several places, and, near the largest of the ponds, the otters' "spur" showed clearly that the animals had for some time been busy there. Taking a straight course to the river above the pools, the watcher again detected the marks of the otters on the sloping bank. By the riverside below the garden, however, he failed to observe any further sign, and so concluded that the animals had probably left the water at the opposite bank.
When, later, the Hunt crossed the bridge on its way up-stream, the villager told his story to the Master, who immediately led his hounds over the hill-top in the direction of the ponds. This unexpected movement drew the followers of the Hunt away from the river; they imagined that the hounds were to be taken across country to a well known gorge where, during a previous season, good sport had been obtained.
At the farm, the Master, leaving the hounds to the care of the whippers-in, waited till the villagers and the farmers had congregated in the yard. He then addressed the crowd, telling them that otters had visited the garden during the night and probably were still in hiding there, and that, if good sport were desired, it would be wise for his followers to form two groups and watch the fords above and below the river-bend, while he, alone, accompanied the hounds to the garden; his chief reason, he said, for pointing out to them the advisability of leaving him was that if an otter still remained near the pond it should be given every chance of reaching the river without molestation. The crowd, recognising the wisdom of the Master's remarks, moved off with the whippers-in to the fords; and, when all was in readiness, the pack was led into the garden. One, and another, and yet another of the " young entry" soon gave tongue; then, after a minute's deliberation, an old, experienced hound raised his head from the rushes, uttered a single deep, clear note, climbed the garden hedge, and galloped across the meadow towards the river.
The rest of the hounds speedily found the line of the " drag," but all came to a check at the water's edge. They were taken back to the ponds, and thence to the pool by the farm, but the scent was weak above the waterfall. They again " cast" to the upper end of the garden, and onward to the river. Carefully searching every hole and corner in the bank, they drew downstream around the bend, and at last struck the scent of the otters among the reeds below the pool. Lutra heard them tearing madly past, heard also the dull thud of human footsteps above her "holt," but she discreetly remained close-hidden in her sleeping chamber. For hours, in a pool beyond the trout-reach, her visitors of the previous night were hustled to and fro, and frequent cries of " Gaze ! gaze! " and " Bubble avent!" mingled with the clamour of the hounds. Then the commotion seemed suddenly to subside. After an interval the hounds splashed by once more among the alder-roots, and the thud of human footsteps resounded in the "holt." In the silence that followed, Lutra, reassured, dived from her " holt," and, paddling gently to the surface, saw the last stragglers of the Hunt climbing the slope towards the farm.
That night no otter from the down-stream trout-reach wandered to the salmon-pool beneath the farm. The water-voles and the moorhens were unusually alert as they swam hither and thither in the little bays along the edge of the current. The fear of man and his loud-tongued hounds rested, like a spell, on the creatures of the river. Even Lutra felt its power; but when the scent of her foes became so faint as to be lost in the fragrance of the meadow-sweet along the river-bank, she ventured into the old garden, and, on returning to the pool, played again in the raging water by the fall.