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.
Warm, cloudy weather continued from the late autumn through the winter—except for a few days of frost and snow in December—so that food was never scarce, and Lutra thrived and grew. The great migration of salmon took place, but she was not sufficiently big and strong to grip and hold these monster fish. Her own weight hardly exceeded that of the smallest of them, so she had to be content with a mixed diet of salmon-fry and trout, varied with an occasional slug or snail that she chanced to find in the meadow. For a brief period after the fall of snow in December, the frost fettered the fields, and the moon shone nightly on a white waste through which the river flowed, like a black, uneven line, between its hoar - fringed banks. Then Lutra, bold in the unbroken stillness of Nature's perfect sleep, climbed the steps leading to a village garden, and searched the refuse heap for scraps discarded from the cottager's meagre board. She even wandered further, crossed the road, and passed under a gate into the fields near the outlying stables of the inn. Here some birds had roosted in the hazels by the fence, and the cub stood watching them, like the fox beneath the desired but distant grapes.
A rough, mongrel sheep - dog, having missed his master, who had been carousing in the inn that evening, chanced to be trotting homeward to the farm on the hill, and, sniffing at the gate, discovered the cub in the hedgerow. With a mad yell the dog tore through the briars at the side of the gate-post; but Lutra was equally quick, and by the time her enemy was in the field she had dodged under the bars and was shuffling away, as quickly as her short legs permitted, down the garden to the river. The dog turned, crashed back through the briars, and gained rapidly on the otter. He reached her just as she gained the top of the wall that, on a level with the garden, formed a barrier against the river-floods. Lutra felt a sharp nip on her flank, and was bowled over by the impetuous rush of her foe ; but she regained her feet in an instant, and jumped without hesitation into the water. The river was shallow where she fell; the dog followed her; and for a moment she was in deadly peril. But before the sheep-dog recovered from his sudden plunge, Lutra swam into the deep water and dived straight for home, leaving the plucky mongrel standing in the ripples, with a look of almost human disgust and astonishment on his intelligent face. He may have reasoned thus: " Surely I caught that otter. But stay, I must have been dreaming. 'Tis queer, though : I'm in the river instead of on the road to the farm." This, for Lutra, was perhaps the only noteworthy episode of her early life.
The otter-cub was about nine months old when spring came to the valley. The water-weed grew in long filaments from the gravelly shallows. The angler, who had ceased to frequent the riverside at the approach of winter, returned to the pool, but only by day, and then Lutra dozed in her retreat. In the pines on the margin of the river the blue ringdoves were busy constructing the rude makeshift that was to serve the purpose of a nest. Instead of seeking how to construct a perfect dwelling place, these slipshod builders spent most of their hours in courtship. Sometimes, owing to the carelessness of the lackadaisical doves, a dry stick released by bill or claw would fall pattering among the branches, and drop, with a plash, into the river, where it would be borne by the current past the otter's lair. From every bush and brake along the sparkling stream the carols of joyous birds floated on the morning mists. The first green leaves of the bean peeped in the gardens; the first broods of the year's ducklings launched forth, like heartstrong adventurers, into the shallows by the cottage walls. In the sunny glades the big, fleshy buds of the chestnut and the light-green, tapering sprouts of the sycamore expanded under the influence of increasing warmth. Finches and sparrows, on the lookout for flies, hovered above the ankle-deep drifts of leaf-mould in the lane below the trees, or crossed and re-crossed between the budding boughs. Only a few of these many signs were observed by Lutra, it is true, for she spent the day in hiding. But at dusk she heard the bleating of the lambs, and the musical note of a bell that had been slung round the neck of the patriarch of the flock in order to deter foxes from meddling with the new-born weaklings then under the big ram's care. She was made aware of the presence of spring by the "scent in the shadow and sound in the light." The hatching of countless flies in the leaf-mould was not watched by the birds only: Lutra also knew that the swarms had arrived; and spring was welcome if only for this.
For months she had fed on lean and tasteless trout exhausted by spawning. Now, instead of lying under stones or haunting the deep basin of the pool, the trout rose to the surface and wandered abroad into the shallows. There the languid fish became fit for food again, and more capable of eluding the occasional long, stern chases of the otter. But Lutra was never disconcerted by the fact that the fish were strong and active; as with all carnivorous creatures, her sporting instincts were so highly developed that she revelled in overcoming difficulties, especially because she felt her own strength growing from day to day. During winter the trout had fed on worms and "sundries." Now, their best and heartiest meals were of flies. Daily, at noon, swarms of ephemerals played over the water, and the trout rose from the river-bed to feed. At first they "sported" ravenously, rising quick and sure to any insect their marvellous vision might discern. Afterwards they fed daintily, disabling and drowning with a flip of the tail many an insect that fluttered at the surface, and choosing from their various victims some unusually tasty morsel, such as a female " February red" about to lay her eggs. At this time, also, the plump, cream-coloured larvae of the stone-fly in the shallows were growing within their well cemented caddis-cases and preparing for maturity. So the trout fattened on caddis-grubs and flies, and the otter-cub, in corresponding measure, became sleek, well-grown, and spirited.
In the winter Lutra had imperceptibly acquired the habit of swimming and diving across-stream, just as an old fox, when hunting in the woods, quarters his ground systematically across-wind, and so detects the slightest scent that may be wafted on the breeze. Nature had been specially kind to her; she was fashioned perfectly, and in the river reigned supreme. Her body was long, supple, and tapering; her brown fur was close and short, so that the water never penetrated to her skin and her movements were not retarded as they would have been had she possessed the loose, draggling coat of an otter - hound. She seemed to glide with extraordinary facility even against a rapid current. Her skin was so tough that on one occasion when, by accident, she was carried down a raging rapid and thrown against a jagged rock, a slight bruise was the only result. Her legs were short and powerful, her toes webbed, and her tail served the purpose of a rudder. Nostrils, eyes, and ears—all were small and watertight, and set so high on the skull that, when she rose to breathe, little more than a speck could be seen on the surface, unless she felt it safe to raise her head and body further for the sake of ease in plunging deep.
When Lutra was nine months old she caught her first salmon; and, though the fish was only a small "kelt," returning, weak from spawning, to the sea, the capture was a fair test of the cub's prowess and daring. It happened thus. She was walking up the river-bed one boisterous night, when she saw a dark form hovering close to the surface in the middle of a deep pool. Her eyes, peculiarly fitted for watching objects immediately above, quickly detected the almost motionless fish. The eyes of the salmon were also formed for looking upwards, and so Lutra remained unnoticed by her prey. She stole around the hovering fish, that the bubbles caused by her breathing might make no noticeable disturbance as they rose to the surface, and then, having judged to a nicety the strength of the stream, paddled with almost imperceptible motion towards the salmon. Before the fish had time to flee it was caught in Lutra's vice-like jaws and borne, struggling desperately and threshing the water into foam, to the bank. There the otter-cub killed her victim by severing the vertebrae immediately behind its gills.
Otters well nigh invariably destroy large-sized fish by attacking them in this particular part. And, according to a similar method, stoats and polecats, whenever possible, seize their victims near the base of the brain. In yet another way Lutra proved her relationship to the weasel tribe: just as our miniature land-otters eat only small portions of the rabbits they kill, so the cub was content with a juicy morsel behind the salmon's head—a morsel known among sportsmen as "the otter's bite".
Soon after the cub had killed her first salmon she separated from her parents and brothers, travelled far down-river, and wandered alone. In the human character, development becomes especially marked directly independence of action is assumed; henceforward parental guidance counts for comparatively little. And so it was with Lutra.