Life on the Upper Thames. Text and formatting by George P. Landow, [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the University of Toronto and the Internet Archive and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]by H. R. Robertson. Source:
"Lord of the stream, and all
The finny shoals his own: — and on that bank
Behold the glittering spoils! half-eaten fish,
Scales, fins, and bones." — Sonerville
Without at all disputing the fact that a good many fish fall victims to the voracity of each otter which is suffered to survive, we cannot help putting in a mild plea on behalf of the species. There are now so very few of the tribe left near the river, their enemies have had such constant success, that from the victors we would now petition for a cessation of hostilities. The difference which the few remaining otters make to the total quantity of fish in the river must be but a minute fraction, surely not enough to justify the complete extermination of "so interesting a native." Only once have we had the luck to view one of these graceful creatures in the Thames; and we do not think that more than two or three are ever seen in one year. The fact of the presence of an otter being detected anywhere seems to call for immediate notice in the Fields usually accompanied with talk of rewards for its destruction. The animal is generally alluded to in more vituperative language than would have been thought to exist in the vocabulary of the "gentle" angler; and should the death of the poor beast be compassed, the glory supposed to attach to the exploit is ludicrously out of proportion to the occasion. In our district the skin of an otter is said to be worth fifteen shillings or a pound.
The following particulars regarding the otter are to be found in the "Museum of Animated Nature:" — "This well-known species is by no means confined to the lakes and rivers of Europe, but abounds also on many parts of the coast, being common on the shores of Scotland and Ireland. It is during the night that the otter carries on its work of slaughter; sly and recluse, it lurks by day in its deep burrow, the mouth of which is concealed among masses of stone, the luxuriant herbage of some steep bank which overhangs the water, or beneath the twisted roots of an overshadowing tree.
"The movements of the otter are remarkably graceful, and it swims at every depth at great velocity; every now and then it comes for a moment to the surface to breathe, previously expelling the air pent up in its lungs, which, rising in bubbles, marks its sub-aquatic course. Having taken breath afresh, it dives noiselessly, like a shot, and gives chase to its prey, which it follows through every turn and maze, till at length the exhausted victim can no longer evade the jaws of its rapacious foe. Whoever has witnessed the feeding of those which from time to time have been kept in the gardens of the Zoological Society, cannot fail to have remarked the fine sweep of the body as the animal plunges into the water, its undulating movements while exploring its prey, the swiftness and pertinacity of the pursuit, and then the easy turn to the surface with the captured booty. This is generally devoured before the chase of another fish is commenced; sometimes, however, instead of treating them thus separately, the otter contrives to bring up several at a time, managing not only to seize them, but to carry them hanging fi-om its mouth. In eating them it commences with the head, which it crushes in an instant between its teeth. Eight or ten moderate-sized fish serve for a single meal; but it is well known that in a state of nature the otter slaughters a much larger number of fish than it devours; hence some idea may be formed of the havoc occasioned by a pair of otters in support of themselves and their young. Indeed the animal seldom devours more of a fish than the head and upper portion of the body. When fish is scarce, the otter will feed on frogs and water-rats. It has even been known to resort far inland, to the neighbourhood of the farm-yard, and attack lambs, sucking-pigs, and poultry, thus assuming for a time the habits of its more terrestrial congeners. In winter, when the rivulets and ponds are firozen, the otter wanders in search of such places in the river as are by their depth secured against the effects of the fi"ost, or travels down the smaller streams to the large river, and there continues its work of destruction.
"Otter hunting was among the favourite field-sports of our ancestors, and is still eagerly carried on in the islands of Scotland, where the difficulties of the chase, from the rocky, broken nature of the shore, add to the excitement.
"The common European otter measures about two feet two inches in the length of the head and body, the tail being one foot four inches. Its usual weight is firom twenty to twenty-four pounds, but instances have been known in which it has attained the weight of forty pounds. Those that frequent the sea-coast are generally larger and darker coloured than the otters of inland rivers or sheets of waters. The female produces from three to five young, and is devoted to them, nursing them with the greatest assiduity.
"The otter is intelligent, and when taken young easily tamed, and may be taught to assist the fisherman, by driving shoals to the nets, or by catching salmon. Daniel, Bewick, Shaw, and Goldsmith record instances in which the otter has been domesticated, as do also Mr. Bell and Mr. Macgillivray. The late Bishop Heber noticed in India, on one occasion, a number of otters tethered by long strings to bamboo stakes at the water's edge, and was informed that it was customary to keep them tame, in consequence of their utility in driving the shoals of fish into the nets, as well as bringing out the larger fish with their teeth." . . .
Mr. Jesse, in his "Gleanings from Natural History," narrates an incident in evidence of the devoted affection that the otter bears to its young. In the case of some young otters being taken alive and put into a sack on board a boat, the old otters persistently followed the captors ten miles up the river (the Indus); and whenever their progeny uttered a wailing noise, they not only approached the boat, but even attempted to get into it, wth utter disregard of the danger to themselves. [Robertson, 168-70]
Robertson, H. R. Life on the Upper Thames. London: Virtue, Spalding, & Co., 1875.Internet Archive digitized from a copy in the University of Toronto Library.
Last modified 7 May 2012