13 Sept 2017

Otter surprise

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

I shall start with something of a confession

We arrived at the Botanic Garden of Wales sort of by accident.  Owners of campervans or motorhomes may well have heard of Britstop.  You buy the book which lists a host of establishments that allow a limited number of campers to overnight on their premises, in the hope that those staying over will feel inclined to sample some of their hosts’ wares or services.  Many of these are pubs or farm-shops, but a few, like the Botanic Garden, offer something a bit different.  Thus, we came here expecting little more than a good day out and an interesting stopover as we tour the UK in our aged Renault Trafic.


Anyone who has visited the Garden before will know exactly what I mean when I say that we got rather more than simply ‘a good day out’.  It is a fabulous, wonderfully thought through and beautifully laid out place and one that would harbour many delights for us as we took advantage of the generous week long entry ticket and our three subsequent visits.  I shall for now though, leave it to others to extol the considerable botanical virtues of the Garden, for it was not necessarily these that would make for our memorable welcome.


The Garden, as I would quickly come to realise, is not only a repository for plants in the more horticultural sense, but also for the wild plants and animals of the local area, especially given its adjacent location to the Waun Las National Nature Reserve.

We had walked little more than a few yards from the Gatehouse when I noticed something fairly large moving about in the water of the lake close to the entrance.

Various ideas went through my head as to what it might be. A huge carp perhaps, breaching the surface as I have often seen them do before, or maybe a well-grown, long-escaped terrapin that one comes across in the ponds of parks and gardens every now and again.  Given the time in the afternoon and the close proximity of the visitors making their way along The Broadwalk, I have to say that an otter did not even come close to consideration.

Yet it was exactly this that in a fairly literal sense we came face to face with.  An otter, perhaps not quite fully grown, was splashing about not fifteen metres in front of us.  We watched it repeatedly disappear below the surface, with that characteristic little leap into the water, the thick tail following the robust yet streamlined body out of sight.  A trail of air bubbles betrayed its direction of travel, before it emerged again, fur sleek and saturated into a smooth, almost bronzy sheen.  It would stare straight at us, maybe itself slightly intrigued by our astonishment as we watched, sometimes through lenses of binocular and camera, or often through neither as we relished the experience with the naked eye.  These are, of course, mammals which most of the time are crepuscular at best and it did at times seem to cut a figure of vague bewilderment at being out and about both in broad daylight and so close to the doings of so many humans.  For five minutes or so we watched the animal’s antics before it slipped away through the fringing vegetation of the lake, across the road and into the other waters beyond.

It almost goes without saying that such outrageous good fortune as to deliver such a rare and privileged encounter was not lost on us.  It is well known to those that work in the Botanic Garden that otters regularly visit the lakes here, but there are still many long-serving members of staff yet to lay eyes on one.  Fortunate indeed.  With a little knowledge and gut feeling you can to some extent make your own luck when it comes to finding and watching wildlife.  Sometimes however, you just have to be, well……lucky.

Ross Gardner is a nature writer whose latest book is The Greater World of Little Things. For more information visit www.rossgardner.co.uk