waiting 20 years to film the wild English otter
Rivers in Britain have had a pretty tough time over the past 150 years. The traditional use of natural watercourses primarily as a means of getting rid of all kinds of rubbish has thankfully almost come to an end, although there are now other even more serious issues facing rivers instead.
Return to the River mostly isn’t a film about damage done though. While the film does sometimes put its stories and subjects into a wider context, it is primarily a film that focusses on some of the best wildlife that our rivers still have to offer, in particular, kingfishers, water voles, great crested grebes and otters. In doing this the hope is that getting a close-up insight into the lives of these creatures will inspire people to help them. The film frames this throughout with snapshots into the lives of one particular group of otters – a species that has recently enjoyed a dramatic recovery in population across large parts of Britain.
Of course, just because an animal has been shown to exist again in a place where it has been absent for 30 or 40 years doesn’t mean it can easily be filmed there. Otters by their very nature are definitley in the ‘difficult’ category by most wildlife film-makers’ measure, particularly in freshwater habitats where otter territories are very large, covering many miles of waterways and streams, and when their activites are mostly nocturnal.
In 1995 when the news that otters had returned to almost all the English counties was widely reported by the mainstream media I was hired by the BBC Natural History Unit to film them for the programme Otters – The Truth a film in the now extinct BBC series Wildlife on One. In that summer of searching for the supposedly thriving otters of the English countryside I caught just a single very brief sighting of one in a river.
Many wildlife documentary films only ever come about purely because of the discovery of an individual or group of that species that, for one reason or another, lends itself to being filmed. With ‘my’ English otters it was almost a 20 year wait for that opportunity to come my way.
The otters that feature in Return to the River are an unusual family group that proved to be a rare exception to the usual nocturnal ‘rule’, that makes otters in feshwater habitats so difficult to view, never mind follow, for very long. They could often be seen feeding in broad daylight. Even better, they were also living in a place that made them relatively used to the sight, sound and smell of people. It was a chance tip-off from The Wildlife Trusts that became the key to opening this opportunity to me and making the film possible.