Report from Chris Smith
More stories about sightings of large cats seem to be appearing in the media again.
One comment, made to me recently, that surely if there were pumas at large, then they would be seen more often, begs a question.
When for instance, did you last see a fox, a badger, a wildcat or an otter? There will be those of course, who may see foxes on a regular basis ... in their gardens.
It is probably true to say that foxes are more often seen in urban localities than in wide open spaces.
In any case, foxes, although naturally covert in their lifestyle, are numerous to say the least and perhaps a little bolder than badgers, wildcats or otters.
The point is that there are of course, very substantial populations of foxes and badgers and healthy populations of otters and wildcat. But how often do people see them? Reality Whatever the reality of the presence of pumas and other big cats in Britain, there will nevertheless be very few compared with more indigenous animals, dozens instead of thousands, even tens of thousands.
While all the aforementioned mammals tend towards a covert lifestyle, pumas are more inclined to be loners and by their very nature, always make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.
A recent close encounter I had with an otter illustrates the point well.
During my ramblings (on foot, rather than paper!) in what I call the frontier territory, where lowland and highland meet, I have found in recent years, more signs of otter activity - more tracks, spraints and so on.
Yet, except on those occasions when I have prepared and planned such an exercise, most of the sightings have been chance encounters and almost exclusively, after dark.
The same certainly applies to wildcats, even more so, for they are covert in the extreme.
But they are there, I am sure. And so too of course, are otters.
My most recent otter encounter was especially rewarding and occurred in the early evening.
The nearby river has been big of late - most rivers have.
As I mounted the old bridge, there right in front of me, straddling the narrow road, was an otter, by its size, an adult female.
It had been heading across the bridge towards me and for a few moments, confusion reigned.
Now it was faced by an alien life-form, furthermore, momentarily it was trapped between the bridge parapets which prevented lateral escape.
The only option was for it to retrace its steps, which reluctantly it duly did.
Adding to the confusion of course, were the dazzling lights of my car, albeit now stationary.
In due course, it made its way slowly back across the bridge, moving from side to side as it sought a means of escape.
Safety Eventually, the bridge negotiated, it scrambled over a dyke and presumably made its way back to the safety of the water's edge.
There is always a sense of deep satisfaction, when the detective work is rewarded by a good and prolonged experience.
I have some wonderful memories of otter watching; some occasions when the preparation, such as the careful inspection of a loch shore for fresh spraints and remnants of food during the day, brings full reward later in the evening with close encounters of a furred kind with these delightful creatures.
There are of course, those occasions when such preparations draw a complete blank although I seem to have been especially lucky.
In such circumstances, patience becomes the greatest virtue.
However even on those occasions when I have either seen little or nothing of the objects of my desire, there has almost always been substantial compensation in sighting other creatures.
Seldom, if you are careful, do you draw a complete blank.
Perhaps it is the sheer surprise, the unexpected nature of these encounters which sets the pulse racing.
By coincidence, my encounter on the bridge was the second such meeting with an otter that particular week, albeit the first one was so brief that had I blinked I would have missed it.
But, by and large, these little interludes between serious wildlife watching are bonuses of a very pleasing kind.
My first glimpse of an otter in the wild, more years ago than I care to remember, was brief in the extreme - no more than a flurry of dark brown fur amid the thick vegetation of a river bank, a covert sliding into the water and a stream of bubbles disappearing round the river bend.
Since then, I have enjoyed some wonderful otter moments.
One winter's afternoon, I was able to enjoy watching a family of otters sliding repeatedly down a snow-covered bank into the river.
One of the most endearing facets of otter behaviour, even in their dotage, is their delight in play. These were gleeful otters.
And there was the memorable hour or so spent with my canine companion of those days, whose grand-pups incidentally, are my current companions.
Perched upon a great boulder on the shore of a loch lit gloriously by midsummer sunset, we watched a bitch otter fishing with her three cubs which, once she had brought to shore her scaly victim, fell upon it, providing me with terrific entertainment as they argued, pulled, pushed, crunched and gobbled. These were hungry otters.
There have been many other experiences but in its own way the recent chance encounter was as thrilling as it confirmed with my own eyes, the presence of otters on this particular river stretch.
By and large, the otters here seem to prefer the cover of darkness.
In contrast, those dwelling in remoter places like the Western and Northern Isles, seem happy to cavort in broad daylight.
I am sure that the underlying reason for this contrast is the general absence of people - far from the madding crowds.
Casualties I suppose the rather grisly statistic of increasing otter road casualties confirms their growing presence.
How thoughtful then that in Skye where these days, otters and road traffic are equally plentiful, cunningly designed and placed reflectors which warn otters of approaching traffic, seem to have cut down mortality.
Where there's a will, there's a way. Now there's something for our road engineers to ponder.
4 th November 1998
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