Two weeks ago I spent an evening with some colleagues on the Lower Mill Estate in the Cotswold Water Park. It was the probably the most inclement day we have had all year with torrential downpours interspersed with the occasional sunny spell whilst all the time the wind howled through the treetops chasing showers of blossom down to the sodden earth. All day I peered out at the weather with the familiar regret that comes from, in more optimistic times, offering to take a group of excited colleagues in search of rare and unusual wildlife that requires calm and still conditions to stand a chance of spotting. Accustomed to the magical unpredictability of wildlife watching, I arrived at the pub for our pre-excursion dinner armed with a cake tin containing one of my most prized possessions, the skull of a European beaver. As I handed it round with coffee I tried unsuccessfully to take the edge off the eager air of anticipation with the solemn prediction that the skull would in all likelihood be the only glimpse of a beaver anyone was likely to have that evening. My plan failed and even as we passed the first wind-whipped lake en-route to the beaver lake, I sensed that hopes were high. However, by the time we had navigated through the woodland and finally settled down in a sheltered spot among last year’s dry reeds on the lake edge, I felt a bit more optimistic and considered our chances of seeing a beaver at somewhere around 50:50.
I was lucky enough to start working at the Lower Mill Estate right at the beginning of the beaver project in 2005 when the beavers had just arrived in quarantine. During the years I worked there I spent many evenings in the company of hopeful would-be beaver watchers and, in spite of the fact that the beavers have 20 hectares of water and woodland to disappear into, we saw beavers far more often than not. However, I had forgotten two main things about beaver watching. Firstly how immensely pleasurable it is to sit quietly on the lake edge at sunset and simply watch nature going about its business. Sit on a grassy hilltop on the Cotswold escarpment at this time of day and there is a good chance that you will very little except perhaps the occasional crow and maybe a blackbird berating you for your unwelcome presence. Sit by a lake on a May evening and it is a very different story, everywhere you look nature is in overdrive. Overhead mixed flocks of sand martins, house martins and swallows swooped back and forth hoovering up insects under the darkening clouds that threatened rain but miraculously took it elsewhere. Across the lake dozens of swans fed peacefully on the shallow bottom with such regularity that often all you could see were swans’ tails pointing at the sky. At one point in the gathering gloom a mallard made a break across the lake with a raft of tiny ducklings sticking to her like glue. Knowing the size of the pike in the black weedy water beneath I watched her progress nervously and was immensely relieved when she finally returned from her mystifying and perilous excursion to the relative safety of the shore. As dusk crept over the lake the swallows and martins were replaced with the occasional daubenton’s bat skimming the water’s surface in search of insect prey around the nest of a pair of great crested grebes. The nest was located perhaps 20 feet into the lake directly opposite the enormous lodge that the beavers have built in recent years. Although the lodge was out of sight of our viewpoint, it stood to reason that this was the most likely point of emergence for any beavers.
This then is the zen of wildlife watching. Sitting quietly in the dusk as day slips into night you are silent alongside your companions, each with their own mix of contemplation, hope and an element of helplessness in thrall to the will of a wild animal. Gradually, as the light fades, hope steals away with it leaving you with the dawning realisation that your chosen quarry is not going to play ball and you are going to go home unrewarded for your efforts. As it happened on this particular evening, once the light had drained from the landscape and the inky black water only faintly reflected the last remnants of grey in the sky, I did finally see the two familiar humps of a beaver gliding out from the lodge behind its tell-tale bow wave but even as I whispered excitedly to my companions I was all too aware that everyone else’s binoculars had long since thrown in the towel. This is the other side of wildlife watching, frustration. Frustration is a well-known emotion for almost anyone who has ever set themselves the task of seeing an elusive species. What I have found surprising has been the discovery that the frustration is an inseparable part of the magic of eventually seeing an animal that one has sought for some time.
I first began to suspect this many years ago when I took a city-dwelling ex-boyfriend to a badger watching evening run by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Previous badger watching experiences had prepared me for an uncomfortable few hours sitting in silence getting eaten alive by midges with an outside chance at the end of it of seeing a distant badger. However this one was run by a guy who had fed the badgers peanuts at the same time every evening for 20 years. All that was missing was a bag of popcorn as we sat down comfortably behind a bank to be rewarded minutes later by the sight of perhaps a dozen badgers emerging on schedule for their nutty evening snack. The views of badgers that evening were incredible and the predictability and proximity of their appearance was almost certainly a blessing for my ex who had previously thought that badgers had long legs and hunted rabbits so would probably not have endured a long evening of silence and blood sacrifice to tiny biting insects. However, for me it felt like something of a hollow victory. Somehow I didn’t feel as though I had worked for the amazing views of the badgers and I was surprised to find the whole thing rather unsatisfying as a result.
As a child my favourite and much-watched film was Tarka the Otter and for many years I dreamt of seeing an otter in the wild. During the years I worked on wetlands this was always a tempting possibility in a world where otters were always maddeningly close and yet tantalisingly out of reach. A footprint on a muddy bank that appeared while I was looking the other way. A colleague on the CB radio two fields away delightedly describing in hushed tones the otter trotting along the ditch in front of her. The many hundreds of hours spent in places frequented by otters and littered with otter signs but the otters themselves invisible. Then finally, one afternoon while sitting on a track in a parked truck I caught sight of that well-known yet never seen shape slinking across the track 100 yards in front of me and disappearing instantly into the reeds. Not really up there with most people’s top wildlife experiences but for me it was a moment of pure disbelieving joy, the reward for all the years of fruitless searching and one that I treasure among my most cherished wildlife memories. A couple of years later a colleague and I visited a hide at Shapwick Heath in Somerset where we had been told that we would have a 50:50 chance of seeing an otter. My initial scepticism at this statement evaporated when we entered the hide and found some people in there grinning from ear to ear and listening intently to the sound of an otter eating something underneath the hide. Minutes later the otter emerged into the lake in front of us, soon to be joined by a companion, and we sat there spellbound for an hour watching the pair feeding and playing in the wintry afternoon sun. As we replayed the experience on the way home, I was again surprised to notice a sense of the same slight emptiness that had accompanied the badger watching. It had been too easy. A 20 minute stroll and a comfortable seat hardly felt like an appropriate amount of effort for such an unbelievable and memorable experience. I have since been amazed to discover that the fleeting glimpse on the track is far more precious and real to me than the almost fantastical otter extravaganza in the Somerset lake.
This to me is the wonder and magic of wildlife watching, the zen, the frustration and the eventual joy if all your efforts are rewarded. As I sat by the beaver lake peering out into the gathering darkness with the increasing realisation that the beaver skull would indeed be all that my colleagues would see of a beaver that evening, I took some comfort in the thought that when we return later in the year, should we be lucky enough to see a beaver, the joy will be all the more poignant for the disappointment they were now feeling.