Photo of River Otter beaver by Ben Lee for Devon Wildlife Trust
There was an escaped lynx on Dartmoor so I went up to Dartmoor, alone and unarmed, to try to find the escaped lynx. I took with me a map, an old book about ghosts, a bottle of water, and some well-used walking boots. In packing for the trip, I had given arguably less thought than I should to the lynx’s needs, but I was carrying a rucksack with a long piece of elastic attached to it that I could forcibly remove and coax the lynx to chase, in the event that the lynx turned out to be playful. The elastic - which formed part of a dubious exterior compartment intended for the storage of drinks or maps - hung off the rucksack in a perilous way and had been irritating me a lot recently so it would be a relief to remove it anyway. I had been walking down the high street in my local town in the sun the previous week feeling fairly decent about myself and the elastic had caught on a pedestrian bollard, ruining the moment by twanging me back up the high street four or five feet in the direction from which I had come, like a small allegory for the experience of being human.
In attempting to locate a lynx on a large high altitude moor, you have to try to think like a lynx. The zoo where the lynx had escaped from is in Sparkwell, on the south west side of the moor. My feeling was that the lynx would head north from here, towards Burrator Reservoir, which would be a good place for the lynx to have a nice big drink. The lynx, following its instinct, would then head to the very highest part of the moor, where there will be snow later in the year, enabling it to put the large pads on its feet to use in a way that it probably wouldn't, in a zoo. En route to here it might well pass by Raddick Hill, where a distraction could take place in the form of a sizeable population of sheep and cows. It was here where I planned to intercept the lynx.
I parked in Princetown, a settlement architecturally anomalous to the rest of Devon, where the abrupt thick greyness of the sky and pebbledash houses can make me forget I am not on a journey from Mansfield to Worksop in 1986 with my dad to buy some fence posts. Some of my ancestors made food for the prison in Princetown then moved to Nottinghamshire, presumably because a lot of it had a familiarly bleak look about it that they found comforting. I set off in the opposite direction to the prison, towards South Hessary tor. I climbed the tor and scanned the blasted and desolate surrounding land for the lynx. I could not see the lynx. I sat for a while and admired the new iron cobra head on top of the tor. The previous cobra head - one of four erected in 1867 to mark the Walkhampton boundary - was snapped off and stolen and I puzzled over the mentality that had led to this, which seemed more surreal and outlandish than most vandalism. Did they later sell the cobra head at a car boot sale on the north coast? Or list it on ebay, in the hope somebody just happened to be using such search terms as “cobra”, “blacksmith”, “retro” and “Duchy Of Cornwall” that day?
I turned in the direction of Raddick Hill, following the course of the Devonport Leat, which dates from the 1790s. There are rusty metalworks in the ground here that could trip you up and I hoped that, if it had followed this route, the lynx had been careful, since it was only two and, having lived in captivity its whole life, would not be used to negotiating rusty metalworks. Devon police had warned people not to approach the lynx. Presumably for the normal lynx reasons but also perhaps because the lynx had a store of remarks that could be very cutting. I felt very alone in this part of the moor and had come out without my phone. This was a deliberate move on my part, since I often feel bullied by my phone and spend an increasingly large part of my life wanting to throw it forcefully into a builder’s skip, but it did occur to me that, were the lynx to corner me, I would not have any means of calling a friend or an appropriate authority and informing them I had been cornered by a lynx.
Near the aqueduct where the leat crossed the River Meavy I checked for lynx droppings, although found this tough, having never previously seen any lynx droppings. I was so busy looking for lynx droppings that I dropped my map in the leat. The map flowed west with the current towards Tavistock for a few yards before I retrieved it. I shook the water off the map and walked to the logan at the top of Black Tor. A few hundred yards on from here I met a sheep with a limp. Was this the first sign of the lynx? The keepers at Dartmoor zoo had said that the lynx was unlikely to kill any livestock but this was not to say that the lynx could not give a sheep a bad leg. Upon review, I decided the evidence was inconclusive.
Back at home, a browse through social media suggested that opinion on the lynx was split into three main camps. A few people seemed concerned that the lynx might head towards Plymouth and eat one of the city’s many schoolchildren. Some people hoped the lynx was soon rescued and returned to the zoo. Others hoped that the escape of the lynx was an early step towards the rightful rewilding of Dartmoor, which would hopefully soon also include the appearance of wolves and bears. Before I moved to Devon I lived in rural Norfolk which had lots of famous ghost animals but people rarely talked about reintroducing actual living animals to the countryside. There was a reflooded fen a mile up the road from my house but at no point did anyone table the logistics of introducing a moose or hippo into it. Here, though, people talk about that sort of stuff all the time.
“I’m going to Ireland,” a friend of mine announced recently.
“Ooh lovely,” I said. “Why are you going there?”
“I’m going to a wedding,” she said. “I might bring back some pine martens, too, and release them into the woods. I’m taking my van, so I’ll have plenty of room.”
One reason I was not more dejected about not locating the lynx on Dartmoor was that I’d already had a bumper week or so for spotting unlikely wildlife in my home county. Just eight days previously I had, for the first time in my life, seen beavers swimming around in the wild in 3D. This occurred on the River Otter, about forty miles east of where I live. Nobody knows exactly how the beavers first appeared on the Otter - the most likely theory is that they were captive beavers released by the owner of the captive beavers or someone loosely or not at all affiliated to the custodian of the captive beavers - but sightings of them began in 2010. Not long afterwards, they began to breed. The UK government then decided to have them removed from the river, owing to the fact that it does not like the UK to be in any way a fun or diverse place. Fortunately, the Devon Wildlife Trust opposed this removal and - having tested the beavers for diseases - managed to get a license for the beavers to live on the river for five years and their effect on the landscape to be monitored. There are now thought to be around twenty beavers living on the River Otter, and in two visits over the last week I had been lucky enough to see three of them.
I did not travel to the river expecting to see wild beavers. Just to have known I was within a hundred yards of some wild beavers and see their teeth marks on some trees would have been exciting enough for me. But as dusk fell and my friend Sarah and I and Stephen Hussey from the Devon Wildlife Trust made our way quietly along the riverbank we heard a loud splash and, about twenty seconds later, two otters dipped past us at speed. The otters had a rattled look about them, like thugs who’d picked the wrong target for their thuggery and were now beating a regretful, chastened retreat. The size of the initial splash we’d heard, Stephen said, suggested that the commotion was about more than just these otters and some other otters. A larger animal had been involved: perhaps a dog, perhaps a beaver.
My neighbour Hayley recently described to me a very spiritual evening encounter she’d had with an otter in the River Dart, not far from the area where we both live. Hayley had been staring into the water, seeing only her blurred reflection and dark stones and vague fish and the blackening ripples of the water but then her reflection grew slick fur and whiskers and a button nose and became brunette not fair and was no longer in the water but out of it, only four inches in front of her face. She and her reflection - which she now realised was not a reflection but a real life breathing medium-size otter - held one another’s gaze for what felt like a minute but was probably an unusually long eleven seconds.
There is an upturned shopping trolley in the mud beneath the main bridge over the river in the local town. A little further along the path the muddled clangs of a business park drown out the sound of cormorants and greenshank and beyond that you reach the railings and barbed wire and graffiti of the long abandoned former Dairy Crest site. But the river still has an old-fashioned way of feeding the mythology of the place. Stories from its banks find their way up the hill into the local pubs at night. Over a pint my funeral director friend Ru told me he’d watched the town seal sitting on the bank a couple of weeks ago, munching casually on a huge salmon. There is almost certainly more than one town seal, but everyone seems to have made an unspoken agreement to amalgamate them into a single town seal, possibly because the idea of him gadding about on various adventures between the weir at the northern end of town and Baltic Wharf at the southern end creates a more pleasing image.
Teenagers hurl themselves into the river en masse on the first semi-hot day of the year, and on every other subsequent one. You can walk past them dressed like a flapping 1970s fool like me and they won’t bat an eyelid. After two and a half years I am almost accustomed to it and have to remind myself it is nothing like the world I came from. I really toned my look down the last time I went back to the town where I went to school and kids still hurled abuse at me from across a busy street. The town where I grew up did not have a river; it had a park and a railway cutting. You went to the park, drank Special Brew, and either had a fight or a snog. My training from that habitat kicked in the other day when I was walking along the Dart and a tall slightly lary looking teenage boy dripping river water from his shirt started striding purposefully towards me. “Would you like a hug?” he asked, with arms outstretched. I told him I’d better leave it, as I’d not long got out of the shower and had just applied deodorant. The only criticism I can really level at these kids is their taste in music, which runs largely to dubstep and drum’n’bass, but maybe that’s nitpicking.
The music on the banks of the Otter was gentler, but that fitted in with its character: it’s a redder and sleepier and narrower river than the Dart, more crowded in by its banks. The heroin party anthem ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers tinkled through the trees from a portable stereo near a tent on a rocky inlet just downstream. Stephen, Sarah and I stood quietly in a dark spot under an ash tree and waited for it to finish and, almost exactly on cue with its final bars, a beaver of not dissimilar colour to the one celebrated in the song swam out from the opposite bank. It was far more serene than I imagined, much more serene than those otters we’d just seen, but when it climbed out onto a small sandbank just upstream and began scratching itself that all changed. “It looks like a giant tea cosy,” said Sarah, accurately. A few nights earlier she’d gone down to the kitchen in her house to get a glass of water and seen a larger than average badger munching through a dish of her housemate’s cat’s food then watched, alongside the cat in question, as it waddled out through the catflap. “I really didn’t think my week could get any better after that,” she said. “But I was wrong.” As for me, any bitterness I'd been quietly nursing about Hayley’s encounter with the otter on the Dart or Ru watching the town seal eat the salmon had abruptly vanished.
Beavers are vegetarians, and - contrary to what you might have read in CS Lewis - not the kind who sneakily eat fish as well. They were last seen in Britain some time in the 16th Century. The thickness of their pelts and the fact that their castor sacs contained castoreum, which was used as a tincture in perfume, meant they were hunted to extinction. You don’t hear many people banging on about wanting a perfume that smells of castor sacs these days so you’d hope that, were beavers to return to the UK in large numbers, they’d have a much easier time. Their ability to fell trees - earlier, upstream, Stephen had showed us teeth marks in fallen willows - and dam rivers could also have a positive effect on the environment, preventing floods, and creating wildlife-friendly pools and bogs. After a grooming session this one - a female - swam another fifteen yards upstream and began to munch loudly through a bank of Himalayan balsam. I thought instantly of my mum, who’d had big problems with balsam in her garden in the past, and pictured the scene on her birthday next year: me and the beaver, driving up to Nottingham, pulling up outside my parents' house, me ringing the doorbell then telling the beaver to hide behind the hedge, just to make the occasion that bit more special for everyone.
Whereas otters live in holts, beavers live in lodges. This is one of many things I love about beavers. It tells you what you need to know about them straight away: they’re a bit fancy, but not too fancy. This particular beaver’s lodge had been built in the bank of the river directly opposite us, amidst the roots of overhanging trees. Spotters from Devon Wildlife had thought that there were three kits living in the lodge with this beaver and her far more publicity shy male friend but six days after my visit a photo was taken by a resident of the local village which clearly showed five kits sitting in the shallows at the edge of the river. Having seen this, I drove back to the Otter that evening and, after sitting on the bank for very little time at all, I saw what I had not hoped for: two kits swimming out, serenely, and following the exact same route that their mum had the previous week, climbing the bank and chomping on the balsam, albeit with considerably less volume. After a quarter of an hour a dog walker called David arrived. David had been here the previous week and has been watching the beavers for over three years, since before their presence on the Otter was even revealed in the news. “The male never comes out,” he said. “The female’s very casual now, though. I held a branch of willow in the water for her not long ago and she started to chew it.”
David is a mechanic who walks his astonishingly obedient and lovely dogs along the Otter every night. He probably knows the beavers' movements as well as anybody. The largest number of otters he’s seen in one night is seven. There was a slight worry about the otters trying to eat the beavers’ kits but, now the kits are larger, that danger seems to have passed. The otters are clearly scared of the bulk of the adult beavers. Stephen from Devon Wildlife Trust had said that the adult beavers were around the size of a cocker spaniel but, looking at David’s cocker spaniel, Willow, I decided this was an underestimation. The adult female beaver looked like she’d be a fair match for his labrador, Bracken, on the scales.
As dark fell and the kits returned to the lodge, David and I walked back along the river in the direction of my car. David, who clearly had more finely tuned hearing than me, stopped abruptly every minute or two to investigate a distant splash or a rustle in the reeds. I had to remind myself not to get complacent about this: in less than a week I had seen three examples of an animal that, just a few years ago, I’d assumed I’d never see in the country I lived in during my lifetime. On top of that, I’d seen two very clear examples of another animal I’d only seen in the wild twice - and much more fleetingly - before. But now it seemed oddly normal. Maybe a lot of this was about the power of scarcity? But it was about more than that, too. Rare forgotten records I bought excited me because they were rare and forgotten, but that wasn’t the whole story: I wouldn’t buy them if they didn’t look and sound great too. At David’s commanding point and whistle, Willow shot off into the field to our right at speed and did two ecstatic circuits of it. When she returned, I looked at her eager floppy-eared face. If you’d never seen a face like that, or one remotely similar to it, and you just stumbled across it, living cheerfully wild near some river or on some desolate moor, you’d be going nuts. “Oh my God! Look at this sodding thing!” you’d shout. But maybe after that you’d remember you were on your own, and there was nobody to tell. Your shouts would echo coldly into the surrounding nothing, unanswered. There would be a vague disappointment about that initially, but you’d get over it. What you’d seen would become your little secret: something that you’d put away somewhere warm and safe forever that was actually all the more special for never being touched by anyone else.
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