Country diary: winter has been cruel to Orkney’s otters

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It’s rare for it to snow here in Orkney. But this February, our islands have taken on the appearance of the high Arctic: the smooth, treeless hills are glossy and white, like Italian meringue, and the inland lochs lidded with ice. It’s perfect winter weather. Breath hangs in the still, cold air, and the sky at sunset takes on a luminous quality with bands of rose-gold and amber sinking behind the hills of Hoy, simmering away into the sea.

A few days ago, driving to town, I glimpsed movement out on the hard white plain that is now the Loch of Stenness. The thick plate of ice curved away at one corner, where movement in the water had kept it from freezing. And there, crouched at the edge, was a dark figure. It was peering into the water, far from shore.

Small, lithe, four-legged. A cat? Strange. I pulled over for a better look. Stepping carefully through powdered snow, I kept my gaze fixed on this small dark body, at which point a second, larger figure rose up from the depths to join it.

Otters at the frozen Loch of Stenness, Orkney.

Otters: one a juvenile, the other an adult, probably its mother. Both were slick with water, with long, muscular tails. Their delicate feet skittered over inch-thick ice, as they slipped in and out of the water. The mother ducked under, before shortly reappearing with bucking motions, clearly thrashing underwater with some invisible combatant. A moment’s silence, then she slid back on to the ice, victorious – and dragging with her a dark, snake-like creature: an eel, still wriggling. A shared supper, though they wrestled for it first. What a sight!

Lucky me. Lucky for them too; for all its beauty, the winter weather has been hard for the Orkney otters – one of whom recently pitched up on the doorstep of the Merkister hotel, curled up like a kitten on the mat, skinny and shivering. (Staff fished some haddock out of their freezers for it, then called the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.)

Not all poorly otters will be so fortunate. But the winds have changed. A gale is coming, and with it the thaw. Normal service will resume soon.

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