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.
Among flesh-eating mammals of many kinds, the females display signs of intelligence earlier than the males. Lutra being the only female among the cubs, she naturally grew to be the most keenly observant, and often identified the finny visitor before her brothers ventured to decide that it was not a moving twig.
The dam spent most of the day asleep in the " holt," and most of the night fishing in the pools. Inheriting the disposition of their kind, the cubs also were more particularly lively by night than by day. Directly the cold dew-mist wreathed the grass at the entrance of the burrow, they commenced to sport and play, tumbling over each other, grunting and fighting in mimic anger, or pretending to startle their mother directly she entered the pipe on returning at intervals from fishing.
One night, while the cubs were rougher than ever in their fun, Lutra slipped off the platform and fell headlong down the pipe into the stream. But almost before she had time to be frightened she discovered that to swim was as easy as to play; and she rose to the surface with a faint, flute-like call. She splashed somewhat wildly, for her stroke was not yet perfected by practice. Hearing the commotion and instantly recognising its meaning, the dam dived quietly and swiftly right beneath the cub, and bore her gently back to the platform, where the rest of the family, having missed their companion, had for the moment ceased to romp and fight.
A few nights after this incident, the mother commenced in earnest to educate her young. Tenderly taking each in turn, she carried the nurslings into the water, and taught them, by a method and in language known only to themselves, how to dive and swim with the least possible exertion and disturbance.
Henceforward, throughout the summer, and till the foliage on the trees near the pool, chilled by the rapid fall of the temperature every evening, became thinner in the breath of the early autumn wind, the otter-cubs fished, and frolicked, and slept, or were suckled by their dam. Sometimes the whole family, together with the old dog - otter, adjourned to the middle of the meadow, and in the tall, dew-drenched grass skipped like kittens, though with comical clumsiness rather than with the agility they displayed in the water. Like kittens, too, the cubs played with their mother, in spite of wholesome chastisement when they nipped her muzzle rather more severely than even long-suffering patience could allow. The dam was at all times loath to correct her offspring, but the sire rarely endured the familiarity of the cubs for long. Directly they became unduly presumptuous he lumbered off to the river, as if he considered it much more becoming to fish than to join in the sport of his progeny. Perhaps, indeed, he deemed a change of surroundings essential that he might forget the liberties taken with him by his disrespectful youngsters.
When about three months old, Lutra began to show promise of that grace of form and motion which in later life was to be one of her chief distinctions. Her body, tail, and head gradually lengthened; and, as her movements in the water became more sinuous and easy, she tired less rapidly when fishing.
Autumn passed on towards winter, the nights were long, the great harvest of the leaves fell thickly on the meadow and the stream, the mountain springs were loosed in muddy torrents, and the river roared, swollen and turbid, past the " holt" under the trailing alder-twigs. The moorhens came back from the ponds where they had nested in April and May; the wild duck and the teal flew south from oversea, and in the night descended circling to the pool; a dabchick from the wild gorge down-river took up his abode in the sedges.
The quick jerk of the dabchick's oar-like wings caused much wonder to Lutra, when, walking on the river-bed, she looked up towards the moonlit sky, and saw the little grebe dive like a dark phantom into the deep hole beneath the rocky ledges of Penpwll. Once the otter-cub, acting under an irresistible impulse, swam towards the bird and tried to seize him. She managed to grip one of his feet, as they trailed behind him while he dived, but the grebe escaped, leaving in the assailant's mouth only a morsel of flesh torn from a claw.
In the warm evenings of late summer and the first weeks of autumn, the angler usually visited the shingle opposite the water-pipe, and waded up-stream casting for trout. The otter-cubs, grown wiser than when the angler saw them near the sycamore, discreetly stayed at home, for they had been taught to regard this strange being, Man, known by his peculiar footfall and upright walk, as a dreaded enemy scarcely less formidable than the hounds and the terriers that at intervals accompanied him for the express purpose of hunting such river-folk as otters and rats.
As yet Lutra had never seen the hounds, nor, till the following summer, was she to know the import of her instinctive timidity. Roaming, hungry, and venturesome, she had chanced at nightfall to catch a glimpse, during an occasional gleam of moonlight, of a large trout struggling frantically on the surface of the water not far from the angler, had heard the click of the reel and the swish of the landing net, and had concluded that these mysterious proceedings gave cause for fear.
The end of October drew nigh; and, when the last golden leaves began to fall from the beeches, the angler ceased to frequent the riverside. Henceforward, except when a sportsman passed with his gun, the otters' haunt remained in peace.
Always at break of day, however, when the pigeons left their roosting places in the pines, an old, decrepit woman tottered down the steps from the cottage door to the rock at the brim of the pool, and filled her pails with water. But the creatures felt little alarm: they had become accustomed to her presence in the dawn. Lonely and childless and poor, she knew more than any one else of the otters; but she kept their whereabouts a secret, for the creatures lent an interest to her cheerless, forsaken life, and recalled to her halting memory the long past days when her husband told her tales of hunting and fishing as she sat, a young and pretty girl, at her spinning wheel in the light of the nickering "tallow-dip".