Book review: Otter country

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Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter
Miriam Darlington (Granta, £20, *£17)

I confess I’m not especially fond of otters. Up the glen here, they have decimated my trout and a neighbour recently found one clamped to the neck of her farmyard goose. But in the Western Isles, I have often watched them on the foreshore or writhing in their couches, and I do admit these voracious mustelids are impressive creatures.

The poet Miriam Darlington has been fixated by Lutra lutra since childhood, and decided to make a year-long ‘water-level odyssey’ to track them in the wilds of Britain. From Cumbria to the Somerset Levels, she intrepidly explores becks, bogs and brambles, and, whether sampling spraints (‘like jasmine tea with a hint of bergamot’), attending a necropsy or wading through wintry water with her feet wrapped in tinfoil, she is consistently an agreeable companion-inquisitive, but never a know-it-all, and frequently funny. She flees a wild boar, topples into peat hags, and gorges on flapjacks in a Cornish tea room.

The spectral presence behind her first excursion (to Western Scotland) is Gavin Maxwell, who somehow popularised a beast that is neither cute nor cuddly. Miss Darlington’s other literary influences include Henry Wil-liamson (she’s good on Tarka country), Ted Hughes and Annie Dillard, whom she often resembles. She can write spectacularly in places-a dog otter ‘coils himself into a pretzel of fur’-yet avoids the fanciful and anthropomorphic. But Otter Country is not just about otters: it touches on ecology, myth, geology and subjects as diverse as tin mining and the Highland Clearances.

As her amateur fieldwork improves, the author’s observations steadily involve the reader with the otter’s netherworld, its nomadic lifestyle and the modern perils it faces. Protected since 1978, hunting is no longer one of these (the days are long gone when the male otter’s penis bone was prized as a tie pin); populations are reviving, but are increasingly threatened by toxins and roadkill. Even if she can’t quite persuade me that her fascinating, elusive and handsome otters are heroic, I challenge anyone not to find Miss Darlington’s writing buoyant and inspirational.

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