This was one of those wildlife moments for which the word “unforgettable” is far too inadequate and clichéd to describe the magic of the experience. And it was all the more electrifying for being so completely unexpected.
The mid-December afternoon had held little promise, being dank and uniformly monochrome, and in the background the thrum of traffic on the Leeds ring road was a reminder that despite the trees and fields encircling Rodley Nature Reserve I was in the middle of a heavily built-up area. Realistically, my couple of hours there held the promise of little more than an over-wintering blackcap or the momentary glimpse of a kingfisher darting along the River Aire.
But then I became aware of a buzz spreading through other visitors to the reserve. There was a sudden collapsing and gathering of telescope tripods, then a movement along the path leading to the willow hide overlooking the duck marsh. And when I caught up with them, in a half-whisper someone told me there was an otter.
I knew they were about on this part of the Aire, having seen some grainy film of one taken in darkness with an infra-red camera a few years back, but I never expected to see an actual otter “live” in broad daylight, since they are mostly nocturnal and even then tend to be elusive and highly sensitive to the presence of humans.
This one didn’t allow me to savour the experience for more than a minute and mostly lolled close to the surface of the brown water with its head coming in and out of view. It peered in our direction for several seconds in the same inquisitive manner as seals, then with a short splash it vanished for good.
It turns out that this dog otter has been making occasional appearances at Rodley for the past couple of months, which means it is managing to catch sufficient fish in the river to keep it from wandering elsewhere. For this the Environment Agency should take a well-deserved bow, having released thousands of young barbel and grayling into the Aire between Kirkstall and Apperley Bridge over the last decade. But that would not have been possible without a gradual improvement in the water quality because of European Union directives which outlawed toxic discharges from textile mills and dyestuff factories and reduced the harmful content of sewage effluent.
The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust also deserves credit for its Mid Aire Otters & Rivers Project which over three years has improved the banks along this stretch of river to make them more habitable for otters. The Trust has installed 20 man-made otter holts, giving them hens to burrow into and encourgaing them to recolonise and breed.
Now, it is casual observers like me who are reaping the rewards. It is a far cry from the 1970s, when these most beautiful and alluring of creatures had been virtually wiped out from the rivers like the Aire, Calder and Don flowing through industrial Yorkshire. And where they were present, they were often hunted until the sport was made illegal in 1978.