Devon Life goes in search of wild otters

Trying to find Miriam Darlington in a café in Totnes is like searching for a wild otter. She is off-grid (she doesn't have a mobile phone) and extremely elusive.

Otter CountryMiriam Darlington goes in search of wild ottersWords by Anna TurnsOtter Country

Miriam Darlington goes in search of wild otters

Words by Anna Turns

Trying to find Miriam Darlington in a caf� in Totnes is like searching for a wild otter. She is off-grid (she doesn’t have a mobile phone) and extremely elusive. Eventually, after twenty minutes of patiently waiting (in different rooms) and looking carefully around each corner but not quite spotting each other, we meet in the corridor surprised to finally bump into each other.

Before we talk about her new book, Otter Country, Miriam shows me a fresh otter spraint which she collected yesterday along the riverbank of the Dart a mile from her home in Bridgetown, Totnes. “Don’t take a great big sniff as it can be quite strong,” she says as she brings out a clear plastic pot, “but many people don’t realise otter poo smells quite sweet even though they eat mainly fish.” Miriam is excited about her most recent find in what she calls her secret otter valley. From her house she walks through green lanes, through fields and down to a stream. “This tiny tributary of the Dart is only a metre wide so I didn’t expect to find otters there,” says Miriam. “The first time I visited, I found otter poo on rocks every 500 metres or so along the riverbank, so I was completely thrilled and since then I have seen two otters together there at dusk.”

Otter spotting in Devon:Miriam recommends the River Torridge. Because it is quite a populated area, otters are more used to the noise and you can get quite close to the river on the Tarka Trail. 

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Otters are easier to see in the winter as there is less vegetation. “I have been looking for otters very hard and tracking and you need so much patience and stealth,” says Miriam. “Otters are so good at hiding, confident that they can’t be seen,” Miriam explains that they see and smell people far sooner than we spot them. “Running away takes more energy, so they tend to hide close by.” There are an estimated 80 otters in Devon, more than anywhere else in the country, but it is still like looking for a needle in a haystack. Otter behaviour can seem mysterious because they disappear so quickly, and Miriam knows that “it is a privilege to see them and exciting when you do. Most encounters are so fleeting and it is quite magical.”

Miriam was influenced at an early age by her grandfather, C. D. Darlington, a famous geneticist. Visits to see ‘big grandpa’ inspired Miriam’s own love for the natural world. “His house was full of the most fascinating things, from Grecian urns to otter skulls. He gave us the most incredible introduction.” And by the age of 11, she had published a scrapbook called Otter News which she circulated to her neighbours to raise awareness of otter hunting. 

“It is a privilege to see otters and exciting when you do. Most encounters are so fleeting and it is  quite magical”

Her father was a biologist and her mother was a poet and a writer with an interest in natural history, so Miriam had a mixture of input. “My parents got divorced and I feel like I have been trying to put those two things, science and poetry, back together ever since. So my book is a mix of the factual and scientific questioning with lyrical poetry and imagination.” 

For centuries, otters have captivated people and provoked questions. Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson was a cross-over between fact and fiction, which Miriam says “puts you down to that otter-nose level which brings it to life.” Williamson’s writing is “incantatory and stems from his detailed observations,” just as Miriam’s book does. She refers to Williamson in her book and hopes people will have another look at his writing, despite his extreme political views as a facist. “It is such a shame he fell from favour because his early writing is so beautiful and often now gets overlooked.” 

Whilst writing this book, Miriam was lucky enough to meet Williamson’s son Harry, a musician who lives in Australia, one of the few places with no native otter species. Harry wrote the Tarka Symphony, the story of Tarka and the river from source to the sea, a piece of music that Miriam is very fond of.

Otter Country is about the landscape and the environment, the wetlands of Britain, not just about otters. Whilst writing this book, she gave up her car and mobile phone because she felt they detached her from the natural world and as she sat watching and waiting for otters she began to notice and enjoy the birds and other creatures that were part of that river ecosystem. This book is Miriam’s attempt to awaken people to what life can be like if you do slow down. “I want to open people’s hearts with my writing and inspire people to get out there. Even if they can’t get into a river in their waders, they can feel through the senses that I have put in the writing, what it feels like to get close to a wild animal and to the environment that we can get detached from.” 

Miriam knows it is easy to feel overwhelmed by stories in the media of extinction and human damage to the environment but otters give her hope. “We worked hard to clean up the polluted rivers and so otters have made a comeback, but we mustn’t take them for granted.” Japan is a similar country to Britain in terms of the waterways and coastline and otters were only recently declared extinct there. Miriam emphasises the importance of a joined-up approach to conservation with different agencies working together towards the same goal. Seeing signs of otters is a great indicator of a healthy river ecosystem. At Cricklepit Mill in Exeter by the HQ for the Devon Wildlife Trust, otters are adapting to more urban environs and appearing on camera in the evenings and weekends when staff go home. “It is wonderful to see that otters are resilient and adaptable,” explains Miriam, “and perhaps, given the chance, wild nature is a little stronger than we thought.”

Miriam has written a children’s fictional version of otter country set on the river dart. “It is a modern Tarka, the story of an otter from birth to death tracing the landscape from the top of the moor to the mouth of the river.”

Miriam is also a fourth year PhD student at Exeter University, currently writing her thesis about nature writing. “It is pure pleasure to study for this,” she adds “but I still get distracted going out to look for otters – they have this magnetic draw and fascination – it is a fixation.” n

See footage of the Cricklepit Mill otters in Exeter at