How to give a meal otter appeal

A bucket of chopped eels will make you very popular in a northern Pennine reserve, writes Joe Gilbert
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The Independent Travel
There's nothing like a freshly caught eel for breakfast - if you're an otter, that is. Once close to extinction in parts of England, the appealing mammal is making a comeback. The Otter Trust, a world-leader in conservation, has been breeding and releasing youngsters since the Eighties, and at their North Pennines Reserve, pounds 4 buys you a day with these delightful creatures.

Situated in County Durham, in 230 acres of peaceful moorland, Vale House Farm was bought by the Trust five years ago. They converted its barns and added new buildings, but one thing they cannot change is the weather. It is 1,000ft up and a fierce wind sweeps in off Bowes Moor most days, even in summer.

So a warming cuppa in the tea room is a good place to start. Here you can study a brochure, using the map to plan your route. Just opposite is a cavernous barn transformed into an animal village for younger visitors. Beneath massive timber beams, a delicious smell of hay and living things greets you.

Inside, rabbits and guinea pigs scurry out of model houses while sparrows swoop to steal their food. Next is a pen housing Angora and pygmy goats with lambs and kids galore. But the star turn is the two Asian otters frolicking in their rocky pool complete with mini-waterfall. Turn up around noon and you will be deafened by their plaintive squeaks.

"They're just plain greedy," grins Reserve Manager Matthew Arnold, arriving with their midday feast of chopped whiting. Native to the swamps and paddy- fields of the Orient, the pair are much smaller than their British cousins, growing only to about 3ft. "We give them all the comforts," says Matthew, pointing out the heated den where the furry brothers spend the night.

But now they are all action, skipping round their pool gnawing away, then squealing like babies for another mouthful. Chocolate-brown and as cute as they come, they clasp their grub in short, webbed claws as cameras click all around them. Unlike the more solitary British species, these rogues live in groups, hence their playful chatter. Full at last, they plunge in for a dip before curling up together for an afternoon nap.

Outside, a steep track leads down towards the Greta, a tributary of the Tees meandering through the valley. On the right, fallow deer graze, an antlered buck surrounded by a dozen dappled does. Above them, the bubbling cry of a curlew breaks the silence. Easy to recognise from their long, curved bills, these handsome waders breed on the Reserve in Spring. Black grouse, now gone from the south, are another popular resident, trailing their lyre-shaped tails behind them.

Plantations of hawthorn provide a rich supply of berries for these doyens of the moors. Beyond the trees, it is otter time again, with a couple of enclosures devoted to the home-grown variety. Bred in captivity, they are amazingly tame, with no fear of humans. Standing on their hind legs straight as a cigar, they size you up with sweet, inquisitive faces.

"Wishful", a seven-year-old bitch, was born at the Trust's headquarters in Suffolk. Now she is the mother of the Reserve's star attraction, a two-month-old cub just weaned. The tiny fur-ball is all fun, frolicking with mum in a comic wrestling match, then sliding into the pool for an underwater bout.

Dad stands dripping on the rocks, white whiskers bristling. These sensitive hairs help detect prey such as eel and salmon when visibility is poor. Soon he plunges in too, his chunky tail a power-source and rudder. Their grey-brown fur is coated in oil, while a dense under-layer remains dry. And how they love a game. A non-stop round of diving, splashing, chasing and grappling delights the crowd.

To warm applause, the cub waddles out, her pug-nose caught in a dozen lenses. Two years from now, she will be back in the wild, swelling the otter population as part of the Trust's release programme. Before that she will be carefully prepared, learning to catch fish in fenced-off streams. Then the Trust's Scientific Officers will select a favourable habitat and off she will go.

But for now, life is just a bowl of whiting. It is 3pm, time for grub, and Matthew arrives with the goodies. "You wouldn't think they get fed four times a day," he laughs as the whole family stand up begging. Mum and dad are real acrobats, leaping to catch morsels in snapping jaws. Baby gets in on the act too, jumping up and down like a yo-yo before scampering off with a tasty chunk.

Below the enclosures is the newly built Visitor Centre with exhibits on the ecology of the moors. Here you can learn about otters and their world, plus the wealth of bird-life in the North Pennines. More than 60 species have been observed on the Reserve, including short-eared owls and merlins.

On the banks of the Greta, a long-forgotten railway is now a track leading to a couple of purpose-built hides. I took the left turn for the hut overlooking Western Scrape, a shallow pool favoured by waders. As always, bird-watching is a chancy business and you can find yourself with only a mallard for company.

But today I am in luck, and a long whistling announces the arrival of lapwing. Crowned with elegant crests, a pair have a bath in the shallows and preen themselves in the sun. Then there are the high trills of a sandpiper touching down before bobbing round the pool in a brown blur. Finally, a couple of oyster-catchers join the fun, easy to spot from their orange bills and black and white plumage.

The stroll back brings a bonus, too. A graceful heron skimming the Greta looking for a meal of brown trout. The whole place is a feast of nature, with red deer grazing beyond the tireless otters. Round your visit off at the model farm, another treat for children. Depending on the time of year, you will find Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs rubbing trotters with shaggy Highland cattle and rare Exmoor ponies, complete with calves and foals. Stroking tame reindeer like some modern-day Noah, you will feel as if you have met more animals in one day than in the rest of your life.

OTTER-WATCHING

GETTING THERE

The North Pennines Reserve is three miles west of Bowes, County Durham, on the south side of the A66 Scotch Corner to Penrith road. There is no public transport to the reserve, but buses run to Bowes and Barnard Castle, from where you can take a taxi. For transport information, call Barnard Castle Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01833 690909).

The reserve is open daily from 1 April to 31 October, 10.30am-6pm. Feeding times for the otters are 12 noon and 3pm. Entrance is pounds 4 for adults, pounds 2 for children. There is disabled access to most of the site. For further details, call the Reserve (tel: 01833 628339).

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