Susan Flockhart

Andy Howard rarely talks to otters. His success in photographing these notoriously shy creatures lies partly in his ability to blend silently into the seascape, becoming indistinguishable from a rock or clump of weed.

Yet on a subliminal level, Howard appears to speak the animals’ language. “You have to think like an otter to succeed in photographing or spending time with them,” he says.

The Highlands-based naturalist has just published The Secret Life of the Otter: a book filled with astonishingly intimate images of the creatures at rest, at play and at war. Getting close enough to capture them fighting, gambolling and even mating is incredibly rare.

Of Howard’s three wildlife photography books, this is the one he’s proudest of because it was the hardest to produce. “Otters are elusive in the extreme,” he says. “Their incredible shyness combined with hyper-aware senses and natural camouflage has made them successful survivors.”

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Otters have inhabited Scotland’s lochs, shores and rivers for at least 12,000 years, yet their nocturnal habits and wary natures have made them shadowy presences, often accorded magical qualities in myths and legends. At one time, people debated whether they were fish, canines or amphibians: early clerics are said to have argued over whether or not their flesh could be eaten during Lent.

And although they were hunted for sport and for their pelts until the practice was banned in 1978, these enigmatic creatures seem always to have been regarded with affection. They were once trained to catch fish or turn fireside spits for their human masters, and there are records of them being tamed like puppies during the 19th century.

Andy Howard treats them with respect rather than amiability and having spent a day on the hills watching him photograph mountain hares, I’m struck by his contrasting approach to the two mammals.

With hares, he maintains a constant, low chatter as he looks them in the eye and clicks the shutter, sometimes addressing them fondly by name. “When photographing hares, you want them to see you, hear you and be aware of you,” he says now. “With otters, you don’t want them to know you are there at all.”

HeraldScotland:

There are no pet names in his new book, in which he describes his relationship with the animals as one of “kinship”. What does he mean by that? “The thing I like about spending time with otters is that I have to be as secretive as they are, in a way. I have to be furtive and become part of their environment to succeed with them. So I find myself quite often behaving like an otter.”

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He prefers to work on stormy days, when “the wind masks the sound of my shutter”, and he’s not afraid to immerse himself in brine in order to catch the “super-low, otter’s-eye perspective” that brings the viewer right into the animal’s watery world.

Rapt in concentration while photographing a mother and her cubs, he once lost his footing and tumbled backwards off the rocks and into the sea. “I remember looking upwards to see green bubbles racing to the surface, only just managing to struggle ashore.”

His subjects – whose likenesses were obliterated by the salt water – seemed unperturbed by the dripping cameraman flailing around trying to retrieve his equipment. That day, Howard appears to have completed his transmogrification into a sea creature.

HeraldScotland: An otter once got close enough to sniff his boots; another dosed happily in his presence after he’d spent five or six days quietly observing it while camouflaged among seaweed. “It had grown to take me as a part of the landscape and would walk past quite nonchalantly within a couple of metres then roll about or curl up and sleep. I actually started talking to it – just whispering to see its reaction. It seemed to accept the fact that I was gently talking to it.”

When I catch up with Andy Howard, Covid-19 restrictions mean I can’t join him in his preferred, Hebridean snapping ground. So this morning, keen to observe an otter in the flesh, I preceded our phone interview with a mini-safari along Glasgow’s White Cart.

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Previous generations of Glaswegians would have been unlikely to see otters on rivers flanked by factories, mills and engineering works. Otters prefer clean waters and during the 1950s, over-use of pesticides combined with industrial pollution and other factors drove them out of many British waterways. Some died as a result of toxins in their food chain and their numbers plummeted by 95%.

Since the 1970s, however, the ban on agricultural pesticides such as DDT, along with de-industrialisation and legal protections against culling, have led to a healthy resurgence and there have been several recent sightings along the now decontaminated White Cart.

Unfortunately, however, my morning wildlife-spotting expedition gleaned nothing but some ducks and an old fox scratching its fleas. Where did I go wrong? “You didn’t go wrong at all,” Howard reassures me. “It’s the luck of the draw. Otters have a great ability to blend in with their surroundings, whether it be the bank of a river in Glasgow, a peat hag in Shetland or some seaweed on the island of Mull.”

HeraldScotland:

The fact they often float with just their eyes and nose above water makes them virtually invisible. “When they are in the water, especially a river, they almost become liquid themselves,” says Howard. “And the way they move makes them very difficult to spot unless you have a really well-trained eye.”

Because they hunt mostly at night, their black, tarry droppings (called “spraint”) along with half-eaten fish, crabs or lobster, are often the only signs of their presence and “the best opportunity to see them is when they’ve actually caught something and they’re sitting on a rock or on the foot of a bridge, eating their dinner”.

Another trick, says the otter-whisperer, is to listen. Having determined that an environment is “ottery”, he’ll sometimes drive around with the windows open. “I often hear otter cubs before I actually see them,” he explains. “They’re quite vocal.”

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Can he describe the noise they make? “I’m not good at impressions,” he laughs, “but it’s a very high-pitched whistle that’s designed to cut through the air. The natural sounds surrounding otters are quite low-frequency – waves crashing, trees rustling. A cub’s high-frequency whistle pierces through all the other sounds, giving the bitch otter a chance to catch up with it or find it if the family becomes separated. They are very good at communicating with each other.”

Late one evening, Howard was startled by a pitiful screeching and followed the sound to discover a distressed mother otter whose cubs were being summarily killed in front of her by a male. Otters are territorial with males guarding a range of up to 20km. And while females often live together in family groups, dog-otters are solitary, communing with others only to mate.

On this occasion, a marauding male had apparently taken over another’s territory and was ensuring the survival of his own genes. In his book, Howard explains that “beyond her terrible trauma, the bitch’s body would respond by returning rapidly into heat, and the dog would be close at hand to impregnate her”.

Howard got no pictures that day – partly because the light was poor but also because of the emotional impact on him. “I’d read about it happening but never thought I’d be in a position to witness it,” he says now. “And in a way I felt privileged to have seen such a raw, brutal element of the life of the otter. People that have studied otters for their life and work have never seen that happen.

“Nature is quite cruel at times,” he adds. “It’s all part of the process – and yes, it was an upsetting thing to witness.”

Hadn’t he been tempted to intervene? “I didn’t really know what was going on until it was too late,” he says, though in any case, approaching a frenzied otter could be dangerous. For all their cute faces and “humanlike” qualities, these are wild animals with strong jaws and teeth designed to crunch through shell and bone. Howard once met the late TV naturalist Terry Nutkins, who in boyhood had lost two fingers to one of Gavin Maxwell’s otters while working as his assistant in the western Highlands.

Maxwell did much to popularise the image of the otter as a cuddlesome, furry friend. In his bestselling 1960 book, Ring of Bright Water, he described sharing his home, his bath and even his bed with the creatures. “I’m not sure that sits comfortably with me,” says Howard. “Much as I appreciate Gavin Maxwell’s writing, I’m not an advocate of people removing animals from the wild and keeping them as pets.”

In fact, the photographer takes the opposite approach, interfering as little as possible with the animals’ natural habitat and presenting readers with a privileged insight into a world in which the human presence has ostensibly been obliterated.

Most of the Secret Life images were captured around sea lochs and he often visits a location several times before taking any pictures. “That way you get to know the animals’ individual characteristics: if they fish at low tide, high tide, where they like to sleep. It means I can be in position, waiting for the otter to come in.”

Howard conducts wildlife photography tours and his top tip for clients is to be patient. “The more time you invest, the bigger the reward. With otters especially, the moment often comes towards the end of the time you allocate to spend with them. If I just bide my time, it should reward me in the long term and usually that does happen. Otter karma is something I teach my clients: don’t push it; if it doesn’t happen it’s not meant to be. If it is supposed to happen it will happen and there’s always another day.”

And when the stars align, clients have sometimes been moved to tears. “It’s such an emotional thing, to have a close encounter with an otter,” says Howard. “That’s what drives me – it’s like a drug. Delving into the secret life of an otter is almost voyeuristic. So highly tuned are the animal’s senses that managing to get close enough to take nice pictures without it having any sense of being watched, gives you an adrenaline rush. There’s no doubt that my clients and I get high on it. Then you crave your next fix.”

The Secret Life of the Otter is not intended as a scientific text but a “celebration of the species”. Howard’s first book may well have been influential in bringing about a parliamentary ban on the mass culling of mountain hares and he hopes this one will have a similar legacy in terms of awareness-raising, so that people will “fall in love with” the animals – thereby helping to ensure they are respected and protected.

Of all the beautiful images in his book, Howard’s favourite features a pair of white-tailed eagles, swooping down on an otter that had just landed its catch. “To get one eagle with an otter is fairly unusual; to get two is pretty special.”

Inevitably for the photographer, as for the fish-hungry otter, there is always the one that got away. He dearly wanted to include an image of an otter eating a lobster and one evening, he watched through binoculars as one surfaced, 150 metres offshore, with a pair of distinctive red antennae hanging from its mouth.

Howard made for the otter’s most likely landing ground and switched on his camera, only to find that the battery was dead. “So I had to sit and watch that otter eat that lobster – one of my dream images. It was lovely to watch but I could have almost cried.

“Whether it will happen again for me I don’t know. C’est la vie, though. You can’t stress out or get angry if you miss a shot. You just have to hope it’ll come round again or something similar will come along.

“And inevitably, it does,” he says, demonstrating his carefully honed otter karma.

The Secret Life of the Otter by Andy Howard is published by Sandstone Press, £24.99

 

FAMOUS OTTER STORIES

Cuthbert and the Otters

Otters are referred to as “water dogs” in Celtic folklore, and generally portrayed as helpful, friendly creatures, providing fish or firewood to people in need and even warming their feet, as in the story of St Cuthbert – patron saint of otters. A Celtic monk living at Lindisfarne during the seventh-century, Cuthbert was reputedly fond of taking nocturnal walks along the seashore. One night, a curious colleague secretly watched as he waded into the sea right up to his neck and began singing psalms. As dawn broke, he returned to shore, whereupon two otters came up and warmed his cold wet feet with their fur. Cuthbert blessed them, and they returned to their holts.

Ring of Bright Water

Gavin Maxwell’s celebrated 1960 memoir describes his life in a remote cottage at “Camusfearna” (Sandaig, near Glenelg), and the two imported otters he kept there as pets. He sourced his favourite – Mij – in Iraq and brought him to the UK during an eventful plane journey that saw the creature chewing its way out of its box and running rampage around the cabin. Maxwell fed the animal on bucketloads of collected eels, walked it through the streets in a custom-made harness and allowed it free rein of his London and Scottish homes where it frequently pierced visitors’ ears with its teeth. The story was partially fictionalised in a 1969 film adaptation and for a generation of children, the scene involving Mij’s brutal dispatch, at the end of a road-digger’s shovel, was a tearjerker on a par with the shooting of Bambi’s mother.

Tarka the Otter

This 1927 novel by Henry Williamson recounts the life story of an otter cub that becomes separated from its mother and wanders the North Devon countryside alone, until it eventually fathers a family of cubs of its own, before being killed by the local otter hunt. As a boy, Andy Howard watched the 1979 film version and was “terribly upset” by Tarka’s demise, “as most children should be”.