Along the Dart on an autumn day

IMG_00000541 copyI spent a lovely autumnal day last Sunday walking along the bank of the river Dart upstream from New Bridge with Philippa. We parked in the car park, crossed over the bridge and followed the path that is for a time, part of the Two Moors Way. We were hoping to crunch some autumnal leaves as we walked along. Indeed I have been reading some lovely blogs recently on the very subject of leaf crunching. But I’m afraid the leaves we trod on simply flattened into submission beneath the soles of our boots. In the damp and shady environment of the woods that follow the river’s course, they weren’t dry and brittle, but moist and malleable.

The first thing I had done after completing my walk round Britain last month was to return to Dartmoor with my sister and walk this very same path. We are both keen fishers and wanted to see if we could spot any salmon moving up the river ready to spawn over the winter. We didn’t see any salmon, but watched wild brown trout rising to flies. A wonderful sight. I think anyone watching us would have been slightly curious though. We always wear polarised sunglasses and hats to cut out the glare on the surface of the water so we can see into its depths, and we adopt a stealthy, semi-hunched approach by the water. It might appear to an onlooker that we are ‘up to no good’, creeping around the undergrowth in our shades so our faces are partially hidden, crawling up to the water’s edge remaining as silent as possible apart from the clicking of our knees and the odd grunt as we attempt to straighten up behind a tree, rock or bush. But it’s fun. Good, innocent fun.

So a couple of weeks later and here I was again. The river was carrying a little more water, but there was still no sign of any salmon. It’s quite possible that the main run has already taken place, and they are now further upstream getting acquainted in the gravelly sections of the West Dart and her tributaries. I will have a further explore in a few weeks time.

But our day gave us a dose of autumn. Cooler air, oak and beech leaves starting to turn. Nothing major mind, just a subtle tonal change from green to browny green. We inhaled scents infused with damp, mould, bark, mud and an occasional waft of moorland mizzle blown down the steep valley from higher ground.

We heard long tailed and blue tits, robins and wrens. The robins were chirruping in their throats, light and delicate, pottering from branch to branch. Yet these same birds would later revert to their ‘tsst… tsst… tsst’ as the light began to fade.

IMG_1631We ambled past Bellapool Island towards our picnic spot at Sharrah Pool. It is, justifiably, a sought-after resting place and we weren’t alone when we got there. A family of five, mum, dad and three sons were settled in for lunch. The children were in wetsuits exploring the pool with a snorkel and mask. Great fun. I might one day summon up the strength to do the same with a camera and see what lies beneath!

So we kept going for a few hundred metres more, picking our way gingerly over the slimy boulders for the last part before settling by a waterfall, looking down a pool where I’m sure salmon would lurk, resting on their way upstream.

IMG_1628As I sat there munching my lunch I realised that in a few weeks time this view of the woodland valley will have evolved into a winter scene. There will be fewer leaves on the trees, more water in the river and if the weather rumours are true, heavy snow on the ground.

A morning with Robert Steemson – Head Ranger for Dartmoor National Park

Rob Steemson
I go in search of spawning salmon with Dartmoor National Park’s Head Ranger, Rob Steemson. Along the way, I find out a little more about what his job involves…

Music: Kevin MacLeod

Photographing otters

October 2009

I was on Dartmoor again, trying to get a photograph of a wild otter for my article about their return to every county in England.

Arriving at the River Dart about an hour before dusk, I plonked myself down on the riverbank opposite a substantial holt, recommended to me by local otter expert , Tim Cox, of “Dartmoor Otters and Butterflies” at Buckfastleigh in Devon.

The weather was sunny, and the river relatively low, so conditions were good. However, the bitch otter and her cubs had not been spotted on this stretch of the Dart for a couple of weeks, although a dog otter had been regularly sighted a few hundred yards downstream. He was coming down a stream which ran off the moor at the point where it joined the Dart near a large weir. He had been leaving plenty of spraint for the bitch otter, as if to say, “Hi! I am around if you would like to mate. Your holt or mine?”, or communication to that effect.

By the time it had grown dark, I had seen Dippers being completely dippy again. They are quite boisterous with one another, and I couldn’t stop grinning when two of them collided low over the water. One of them plopped onto the surface, regained its composure and then fluttered over to a stone looking a little dazed. It wasn’t long though before he was back in the scrum with his mates.

Long tailed tits were much in evidence, as were a couple of cormorants who roosted over night in a nearby tree.

I decided to pack up my camera after dark as photography was now no longer possible, but continued to ramble into my sound recorder. Just then, I saw an animal swimming downstream, its head poking out of the water. I estimated its length to be less than two feet. It dived under the water leaving a trail of fine bubbles which were reflected on the surface by the street lights above the road opposite, and then made its way over to my bank. I waited with baited breath, hoping that whatever it was would climb onto the bank so I could have a closer look, but that was the last I saw of it. Initially I got myself very excited at the possibility of having seen a young otter, but it dawned on me that this was more likely to have been a Mink, given its size.

Morning Mist-1

I slept in the comfort of a warm cottage that night, but returned to the misty chill of the river before dawn on the Saturday to continue my vigil.

There had been a lot of rain overnight, but the river showed no signs of rising as the light grew, revealing the holt opposite. Were the otters around?

Around 7.00 am however, the river started to rise. Within an hour it had risen 18 inches or so, and the water flooded the extensive network of hollows opposite. If the otters were there, they would still have enough space to remain hidden because of a raised gravel bank at the back of the holt. I changed my position on the river so I could get a good look through my binoculars towards the back of the holt with the low morning sun, but couldn’t see any signs of life.

Home Sweet Home-1

With the threat of further rain, I put up my hide and moved the few bits of kit I had into its shelter. The water continued to creep up the bank and white foam started to drift down the river as the water rose. The foam was then followed by groups of kayakers and canoeists.

The day flew by oddly enough, considering I was cooped up in my little shelter, but with so much going on across the river, I had a never-ending source of “entertainment”. At one point a kayaker rolled upside down and couldn’t right herself. She soon emerged from under her kayak, spluttering water and grabbed hold of a companion’s kayak who paddled her to shore, whilst another paddler shunted her abandoned boat onto the safety of the shore as well. After a few minutes she was back on the water – no damage done except a cold head and her pride dented a little.

Autumn Colours on The River Dart-1

Around lunchtime I left the shelter and headed down the river to pay a visit to Tim at the otter sanctuary to get the latest news. I found him mopping up after the previous night’s storm. He confirmed that the bitch and cubs hadn’t been seen for a while around the holt I was watching, and also pointed out that with the river now in flood, they would probably remain at a holt away from the river on drier ground. I was saddened to hear that the sanctuary’s only male Eurasian otter (lutra lutra), which is Britain’s native species, had died a couple weeks previously from a kidney disease. Tim is very close to the otters at the sanctuary, and the loss of the otter had clearly affected him. We went to see the deceased’s mate who was curled up asleep in her artificial couch (normally a bed of grass or reeds in the wild). Tim explained that she had been grieving since his death, and could remain relatively inactive for a few more weeks until her mood improved.

Meantime, they had contacted the other sanctuaries around the country letting them know of their loss, asking that they could be notified should a dog otter require a new home. They continue to wait for any news.

Tim with otters-1

The sanctuary closes to the public during the winter, and Tim told me that he would be based for much of this time at Bristol Zoo looking after the otters there until the sanctuary opened again in the spring.

Realising that my week-end was probably going to be otter-less, I returned to my hide to watch the shadows lengthen over the river. I have known from the start of this project that otter spotting is very much a hit or miss affair. So far, I have been missing.

I know that this stretch of the Dart hosts a healthy otter population. With Tim’s help, I know where the holts are and where the otters like to roam. I have seen their tracks and spraint, but so far I haven’t been in the right place at the right time. This makes me all the more determined to visit the river again just as soon as I can in December. I’ll make sure I pack some warm clothes.OR2X3176_edited-1