On the trail of Tarka

90 years after the release of Henry Williamson’s novel, Tarka the Otter, these elusive creatures are making a comeback

Words: Tor McIntosh


It was 90 years ago that the secretive world of a young male otter called Tarka first entered the public imagination following the publication of Henry Williamson’s novel, Tarka the Otter, in October 1927. Set in the North Devon countryside, the tale follows the fictional otter’s footprints as he wanders far and wide hunting for food, searching for a mate and, all too often, escaping the terrifying and persistent otter hunt led by his nemesis, Deadlock the Otterhound.

It’s an eventful and, at times, cruel life in the wild, but the lyrical way in which Williamson describes life from an otter’s-eye view is remarkable. Take, for instance, Tarka’s first encounter with a kingfisher: “One morning as he was blinking away the brightness a bird about the size of a sparrow alighted on a twig… the bird’s feet were pinker than the rock-veins in the cleaves of Dartmoor, his wings were greener than the opening buds of hawthorn, his neck and head were bluer than the autumn noonday sky, his breast was browner than bracken.”

Since its publication in 1927, Tarka the Otter has never been out of print and its endless popularity has continued to raise awareness about this much-loved but rarely seen mustelid. It’s horrifying to think that, only 50 years after the novel was first published, otters had all but disappeared from Britain’s waterways after suffering years of being hunted. It’s an ever-present theme throughout the book, as the protagonist, “a young male of a ferocious and persecuted tribe,” is constantly on alert for the baying of the hounds, the piercing cries of ‘Tally Ho!’ from otter-hunters and from toxic pesticides that caused widespread water pollution. Following the outlawing of hunting in 1978, and the banning of pesticides known to pollute waterways, otters have been able to make an astonishing comeback.

As nocturnal and nomadic creatures, known to travel vast distances, the Eurasian otter is one of Britain’s most secretive mammals. Even at known ‘otter spots’ along rivers and canals, sightings can be few and far between. Despite spending 20 years in the right places, Paul Wilkinson, a senior ecologist at the Canal & River Trust, has only ever seen three otters in the wild. “When we used camera traps at one location, an individual male otter returned to the same location every 12-17 nights,” says Paul. “There was no particular pattern, demonstrating how much ground they are covering and the difficulty of trying to predict where to see one.” Their elusive nature has given them an almost mystical persona and made them creatures of fascination to human observers – stealth-like shadows at home on both land and in water.

Over the past 15 years, there have been regular reports of otter sightings by staff, volunteers and visitors on a number of rural canals on the Trust’s network, especially in the West Midlands on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, Stratford and Birmingham & Fazeley canals. A regional otter survey carried out in the West Midlands between January and March 2017 revealed surprising signs of otter activity at urban locations on the Grand Union and Worcester & Birmingham Canal, close to the boundary of Birmingham City. The survey also found that 92% of the sites where signs of otters were recorded occurred under bridges – a nod to the many bridges Tarka hides below during his wanderings along Devon’s Taw and Torridge rivers.

There is hope that the continued recovery of rivers and canals will encourage otters to colonise more waterways. But Paul says that due to some rivers being diverted, cultivated or degraded, and as some areas are too urban for populations to flourish, it’s unlikely that otters will ever become as common as they were in Williamson’s era.

Starvation is another risk factor. Otters have high metabolisms and need to eat 10% of their body weight each day to survive – a subject Williamson tackles with the tragic death of Tarka’s companion, Greymuzzle, following a harsh winter.

With a diet comprising mainly of fish, the return of otters has left some people concerned about the impact on fish populations. But as otters move over such vast distances and eat a varied diet, including birds, frogs, crustaceans and small mammals, Paul believes that they are unlikely to significantly affect fish populations. “The only impact that may be seen could be in the ever-growing numbers of invasive signal crayfish, which are relatively easy to catch and occur in dense numbers,” he explains. “We need to spread the positive message that otters are welcome on our waterways, [as their] presence should be seen as a green flag for a healthy ecosystem.”

If seeing an otter in the wild has so far eluded you, then why not curl up on your sofa and lose yourself in the pages of Tarka? It can be a tear-jerker at times, but as a lyrical insight into the lives of these much-loved creatures, it really is without compare.

Otters have been making a comeback in Britain’s waterways since the 1960s, when they were almost extinct in some areas. Now, a new survey by the Canal & River Trust reveals they’re even present in central Birmingham. Read our online feature to find out more.