In searching the waterways for signs of otters, Natural England volunteer, Emma, has been discovering the beauty of Yarner Wood as it changes through the seasons…
For the last year I have been volunteering as part of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve otter survey team, visiting the woods on a regular basis to look for signs of otters on and around the rivers, streams and leats that braid their way across the landscape. Visiting the same places through the year is a lovely way to watch the seasons work their magic on our woodlands and landscape.
Starting in winter, when the ground is hard and the trees are bare I did wonder what I had let myself in for. The weak winter sunshine did little to warm the fresh morning air, bright as it was with the thin song of the determined robin. Yarner Wood has many charms, not least that the ground and trees are dripping with mosses and lichen. Close to, they look like a forest in miniature, like a pocket version of the canopy some 30 metres above. The clumps of brambles and ivy in the undergrowth looked worn and thin, with pony tracks criss-crossing the river, making the survey easier than I expected. Unfortunately, with the higher rainfall we had, there was little chance of otter signs surviving in the path of the winter water.
Visiting the woods in spring is like an injection of sunshine for winter weary souls. The smell of fresh soils waking up the sound of urgent and insistent bird song and the vibrant green of new leaves make an indelible mark on your senses. So too did the burst of growth from the understorey as it snagged on my clothes and hair as I meandered my way along the waterways. At the micro scale, decaying wood is a superhighway for ants and other insects, and miniature ferns and fungi grow out, greedily embracing the sun before the canopy closes overhead.
The woods are at their fullest and thickest in summer. As trees and plants vie for space, sunlight, water and nutrients, the birds who are finishing their busy feeding their young families on the glut of insects flying on the gentle breeze. The woods are a cool respite from the openness of Dartmoor’s open moorland. This summer has been somewhat exceptional – with prolonged warm, dry weather the river flow was low. This is good news for otter spraint sightings. The black smear on a rock in the middle of the river flow seems inconspicuous for a territorial marker. But imagine being an otter. Imagine swimming along the river, treading the water through your paws, the current tugging at your thick fur. As you swim your nose is just proud of the silvery surface, your senses attuned to the forest above and the river below when you come across a fishy calling card right at eye height.
But actually, it is autumn that I like the best. I’m looking forward to the colours on the trees as they loosen their leaves for winter, like an artist’s palette suspended on the branches. The day I chose for the survey was wet. Very wet. But this much needed moisture ran in vertical rivers down the tree trunks, dripping from overhanging vegetation and into the swollen rivers below. So laden was the air with moisture that a mist hung in the air between the trees. It does not take much imagination to pretend you are in a cloud forest.
Getting outdoors, exploring Yarner Wood and contributing to an important monitoring project make these trips one of the most rewarding things I can think of. In the pursuit of otters I have seen and heard delightful woodland birds, filled my lungs with the soft smells of the woods and appreciated the complexity of the mosses and ferns that grow along the river bank – fantastic food for the soul. I have also met some passionate volunteers, who have kindly shared their enthusiasm and knowledge with me on the wonderful Yarner Wood, ecological surveying and even the restoration of ancient boundaries – there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to Dartmoor!
Photos and words by Emma Magee – Otter surveyor at East Dartmoor NNR
You can visit Emma’s own blog https://ithinkisawanotter.wordpress.com/ where she writes about nature watching in South Devon.