Brief Encounters of the urban “Wild” Kind

By Alexander Portch

An otter in Bristol. A mere glimpse; a surge of water, a stream of bubbles and the hint of a tail and two rear paws disappearing into the murky depths of the harbour’s impounded waters. Then gone.

Otter

Otter (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This now represents my first and only siting of a “wild” otter. Hitherto my experience of these elusive and once endangered creatures had been solely through the medium of the screen, usually to the accompaniment of David Attenborough’s familiar narration and, almost by definition, comprising depictions of windswept Scottish lochs or broad North American rivers, hemmed in by miles of forest and mountains, seemingly devoid of human presence. For my first “real-life” encounter with an otter (Lutra lutra) to take place in the very heart of one of Britain’s busiest cities seems incongruous, and utterly unexpected. I had heard rumours of such sightings before but, much like reports of seals in the Severn or Great White Sharks off the coast of North Cornwall,[1] I had assumed they were uncommon – almost “freak” incidents – not something that would be witnessed by someone such as myself, and certainly not whilst casually strolling along the quayside a Friday morning on my way to the train station.

Surely otters, like Eagle Owls (Bubo bubo) and Beaver (Castor fiber), are the preserve of veteran naturalists; wind-swept, weather-beaten individuals whose hours spent ensconced in hides perched high on rugged hills are rewarded with observations of the sort of (non-human) nature everyday office (or library)-dwelling folk will rarely, if ever, have a chance to emulate. The same might once have been said for other seemingly exotic creatures, particularly in urban environments long characterised by low biodiversity and high levels of air, soil and water pollution. Creatures like the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), a pair of which had been gazing placidly down at me all the while as I stared wide- (or should that be wild-) eyed down at the otter.

Clearly, however, times have changed. A century ago the area of the city docks where I was fortunate enough to see my first otter was a centre of sugar refining and iron working. During the second world war it bore witness to some of the most intense and destructive air raids by the Luftwaffe (nearby castle park is now a green space in large part due to the damage wrought during the Bristol Blitz).[2] Until relatively recently the cleanliness and clarity of the harbour’s water was also less than ideal. Prior to the construction and opening of the floating harbour in May 1809, the River Avon could at least benefit from the twice daily flushing provided by the flooding and ebbing tides. Once sealed, however, the harbour rapidly became stagnant, and polluted by the regular discharge of sewage from the city and the many ships that made Bristol such a prosperous and (in)famous international port. Whilst this issue was addressed in part through the development by Brunel of a dredging system using a number of sluices emptying into the “New Cut”, it wasn’t until the decline in commercial shipping towards the latter half of the twentieth century and the emergence, more recently, of an interest in the need to create a clean, healthy and pleasant urban environment, that conditions have improved sufficiently to support a wide array of floral and faunal populations.[3]

In many respects, therefore, the return of the otter is perhaps no great surprise; although “return” isn’t perhaps the most appropriate term in this instance. It is almost certain that otters existed along the Avon (and its tributaries the Frome and Malago) in the area that is now central Bristol long before the settlement developed into a wealthy port and cosmopolitan modern city. The intervening centuries, however, have borne witness to the complete transformation of the region’s waterscape, such that the Avon at this point is now a predominantly anthropogenic river. Where once the tides surged upstream from the Severn, the water now flows slowly and placidly within the confines of the harbour; its levels changing almost imperceptibly in conjunction with the opening and closing of locks and sluices. At present that massive tidal range is diverted along the New Cut, a channel carved out through human labour, which two hundred years ago didn’t exist at all. The otters have thus colonised a new human-made space and can, in many respects be considered an entirely urban population. Alongside the Peregrines, roosting high up on the ledges of a former electricity power station, these creatures are a clear example that every so often human activity can in fact have positive benefits for other elements of nature. Given the frequency with which reports concerning the interactions between humans and the rest of “nature” highlight negative impacts and impending threats, such as anthropogenic-enhanced climate change, I think this is something to celebrate.

And it’s not confined to cities. Even within the context of my own focus of research – the history of efforts to harness the power of the tides in the Severn Estuary, and the wider subject of tidal power throughout the British Isles and beyond – the potential for a more positive, almost symbiotic relationship between people and other plants and creatures is increasingly apparent. Research into the environmental implications of wave and tidal energy devices, in addition to offshore wind turbines, now concentrates as much on their ability to function as new habitats for marine creature as the possibility that they may exert a harmful effect.[4] Whether such technology will ever prove to be wholly benign and largely beneficial remains to be seen, but as the 21st century thirst for electricity shows little sign of abating it would surely be a good thing for the sources of that energy to give back to the world as much as they take away.

A brief internet search reveals that my otters aren’t newcomers. In 2011 the BBC reported that otter scat had been found in the harbour area, whilst remote cameras caught the creatures responsible during their night time forays.[5] The Bristol Naturalists Society now operates an otter recording programme, and the City Council lists otters amongst the various species that now call the city home.[6] I may not have made a unique discovery or an original contribution to science, but I have at least been given a new insight, however brief, into a city I thought I knew; much like the river Severn, which I still feel as though I’m discovering for the first time, despite having lived within sight of it for much of my life. Now when I wander along the concrete pavements, holding my nose against the traffic fumes, diverting my attention from the clatter of police helicopters overhead, or ambulance sirens nearby, I can at least rest assured that somewhere, not too far, away the principle sounds and smells are the gentle splash of an otter as it slips gracefully through the harbour waters, and the odour of its fresh fish dinner.

 

Notes

[1] At least I had assumed sitings of seals in the Severn were uncommon until I found this: https://www.facebook.com/keiththeworcestershireseal. For the shark: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/great-white-shark-is-spotted-off-cornwall-1115302.html.

[2] See the Know Your Place website to view various historical maps of the city, in addition to information regarding past activities in the city derived from the Historic Environment Record (HER): http://maps.bristol.gov.uk/knowyourplace/

[3] A brief history of the development of the harbourside is provided in a “Character Appraisal & Management Proposals” document produced by the Bristol City Council: http://www.bristol.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/planning_and_building_regulations/conservation/conservation_area_character_appraisals/City%20Docks%20Conservation%20Area%20Appraisal.pdf

[4] J.C. Wilson & M. Elliott, ‘The habitat-creation potential of offshore wind farms,’ Wind Energy, 12:2 (2009), 203 – 212; R. Inger, M.J. Atrrill, S. Bearhop, A.C. Broderick, J. Grecian, D.J. Hodgson, C. Mills, E. Sheehan, S.C. Votier, M.J. Witt and B.J. Godley, ‘Marine renewable energy: potential benefits to biodiversity? An urgent call for research,’ Journal of Applied Ecology, 46:6 (2009), 1145 – 1153; C. Frid, E. Andonegi, J. Depestele, A. Judd, D. Rihan, S.I. Rogers and E. Kenchington, ‘The environmental interactions of tidal and wave energy generation devices,’ Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 32:1 (2012), 133 – 139.

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-14298095/

[6] http://bns.myspecies.info/content/bristol-otter-survey-group; https://www.bristol.gov.uk/sites/default/files/assets/documents/otter.pdf