« PreviousContinue »
and Vennacher, and come down in hard weather to the streams that flow out of them. I used to be much annoyed in the winter mornings, when ranging Leny and Garwhinnie waters for ducks, by people getting down before me to secure the salmon which the otter had "ta'en oot." Of course they put up all the wild fowl. After a powdering of snow the mark of a hobnailed shoe was sure to turn my course from these rivers to Loch Vennacher, as I knew full well that the enormous foot would plod down Leny water, and up Garwhinnie to the very loch, without leaving a nook undisturbed, if it only had a quarter of an hour's start of me. I had therefore to be at the river by break of day, and was rewarded by many a famous chance at the fowl, as well as frequent insight into the operations of the otter.
Many a fine fish have I seen lying on the shingle with only a few bites out of its neck; and, if undiscovered by the otter's scavengers, it was seldom honoured by a second visit from its captor. In snow, I generally saw where the otter had landed to dry himself, but he never strayed far from the river's bank, and indeed it would have been difficult walking, as he always left the mark of his belly ploughing the snow if there was only two inches on the ground.
In my early shooting days, when after wild fowl, my water dog brought me a half grown otter which he had seized in a drain. I could not at first make out what extraordinary mouthful he had picked up. When I saw it was a young otter, I brought it home alive in my game bag, intending to tame it. But the dog had broken its back, so we were obliged to have it killed. A few years after, I shot a fine male one near the same place. My
terriers came on its track in a brook. It immediately took the land a long way ahead of the dogs, and by a short cut made for the loch. I got my eye upon it slowly cantering along, intercepted and rolled it over not thirty yards from the shore.
A friend of mine last autumn was wandering along the banks of the Tweed, and seeing the dead water of a deep pool a little agitated, he peeped cautiously over. An old otter and several young ones were paddling about in perfect security and comfort. He made a slight noise, and all disappeared as if by magic, where and how he could not discover. After remaining quiet for a short time, they were all on the surface again in the same sleight of foot way. He described it as a beautiful and interesting sight, and slipped back without a second time disturbing them. He told me he had heard that Lord John Scott's otter hounds came to the pool shortly after, on purpose to hunt them, but never discovered either the dam or her young.
The ears of the otter, buried in its fur, like those of most water animals, give it something of a reptile appearance. But short ears are not always the characteristic of creatures that feed in and about water. There is an aquatic mouse, about the size and colour of a half-grown Norway rat, which has very large round transparent ears. I have often met with it when fishing the more sluggish waters of the lowlands. It is fully as expert a diver as the common water rat. When angling a shallow gravelly channel of the Ale in Selkirkshire, I saw one dive a distance of at least a dozen yards, and watched it swimming most expertly under water all the time. From its light fawn colour, it is far easier seen than the water rat.
are also longer, and its motions more light and springy. I have never observed it in any part of the highlands.
The common Mus aquaticus is an ugly creature, and his disgusting look is increased by the apparent deficiency of ears. I remember three being taken alive, by a water dog on the Thames, of a rich cream colour. They all haunted the same bend of the river, and were constantly noticed gamboling among the reeds before they were captured. I never saw more savage little creatures; they seemed to surpass even an imprisoned weasel in ferocity.
I have often noticed that loathsome creatures prey upon loathsome food; a favourite morsel of the water rat is a bloated toad, while a nest of earwigs are the choice tit bits of the latter. As many as forty have been taken out of a toad's maw. Sheridan's remark to a poor starved man eating shrimps is equally appropriate here-" You 're very like your meat."
The otter, like all animals that depend on the waters for prey, loses much of his address and cunning when cut off from his native element. Bewildered on land, he seems to feel that he has no fair play, and sometimes refuses to take advantage even of the resources within his reach. In the river or loch, on the contrary, he has always his wits about him, and will try every ruse ere he yields up his life. When hunted, and want of air forces him to the surface, he either takes advantage of a water leaf to cover the tip of his nose, all the rest of him being immersed, or comes up under some rotten stump precisely his own muddy colour. Flapper shooters may notice the same instinct, when they surprise a brood of ducklings, though in a far less degree. At the signal of
the mother they all dive, but come to the top again so stealthily, some under a screen of weeds, wrapped round them like a green veil, and others hidden by a hollow bank or root, that, although several are within a few yards, none may be detected until they are winded by the sagacious retriever.
ON the Argyllshire Moors an eagle chased a hill-hare, which took shelter under a stone. The eagle watched it long, but puss was too cunning for him, and never would move so far from her hiding place as to be taken by surprise. At last her pursuer got tired out, and flew away. The white hare has always a refuge of this kind, where eagles abound, in case of danger. The common hare is seldom on very good terms with his mountain cousins. This is not much to be wondered at, for the lowlander, although proverbially timid, is very pugnacious. I once saw a battle apparently between two monkeys. On slipping quietly forward to see what this Lilliputian fight could mean, I was much amused to find it was a couple of jack hares, reared upon their hind legs, pummelling each other's heads and shoulders with right good will. The blows were sharp and true; and if all the old brown champions box the ears of their Alpine kin to the same tune, they may well fight shy of them.
The Perthshire grouse are much smaller and darker in colour than those of Argyllshire. The West Highlander is a beautiful rich red, and very large. In the low