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Country Gentleman: 'On zoos and otters' (Part 2)

C.W. Nicol looks at otters at a zoo in Ube, in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

On a late summer evening I was riding my bicycle over an old stone bridge that crossed a quiet, winding river. The river banks were protected by sentinels of pollarded willows, hundreds of years old. When I looked upstream I saw what at first I thought to be a little man, just over two feet tall, standing by the water's edge. I got off the bicycle, ducked down and peered over the parapet. The little man slid into the water and I saw his tail. It was an otter. So excited I was! Otters in England had been persecuted almost to extinction.

The one I first saw was the male. Later I saw the female and her three cubs.

It was the end of the school year, coming to the beginning of the long summer school holidays. In Britain, it doesn't get dark in July and August until 10 p.m. This year I was helping out at a local farm. The gentleman farmer, a retired army officer, his wife and two sons had befriended me, as did their grizzled old local farm worker. I mucked out pig sties, cow stalls and stables, helped feed chickens, geese and ducks, helped groom the horses, chopped kindling for the kitchen wood stove and probably made a pest of myself with constant questions.

The little river flowed through my friends' land. Whenever I could I went to the old bridge to try to get a glimpse of the otters. In the evenings I walked quietly along the river banks and discovered the old hollow willow where mother otter had raised her young. They still used the den, with its entrance submerged and concealed in old underwater willow roots.

When I mentioned the otters to my friends their father warned me to keep it secret. There were local people who killed otters for "sport." The old farm worker said that we should never even say "otter" and that they should be referred to as "river folk."

The more I watched them the more I loved them. In the evenings, when they were most active, I forgot time and often got home after curfew. My mother scolded, nagged, phoned the farmer and pestered me to tell her what I was doing so late in the evenings.

In the end her nagging got so shrill I told her about the otters and even showed her my notes and sketches, swearing her to secrecy.

So what did she do? The next time she went to the local pub with dad, she couldn't help herself and after a couple of shandies blabbed on about how her son loved nature... and otters. Some locals were very interested...

Within a week the killers came with their dogs, sticks and guns. The whole otter family was wiped out. They even went to the pub and laughed about it. My farmer friend didn't speak to me for weeks. From that time on, just 13, I never trusted my mother with confidence and never really forgave her.

Otters are protected in Britain now. Otters are my favorite wild animals, even though, as with children, one shouldn't have favorites. (Bears are my number two favorites.) I've never kept an otter as a pet.

I am proud to be a citizen of Japan, but of all the things I miss most about Britain it is otters and country pubs.

It makes me so sad to think about what has been done to rivers in Japan and that Japanese otters were driven to extinction.

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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