PETER FROST tracks an otter in the backwaters of the Broads National Park and uncovers an interesting quirk of history
The tiny electric launch, the Electric Eel moved silently away from the jetty at How Hill on the river Ant in the heart of the Norfolk Broads National Park.
We soon left the main river taking a tiny reed fringed backwater.
The Park Ranger spotted it first, they always do, something slender, sleek and shiny swimming across the river. First guess was a mink, common enough to be a real pest in these waters.
It moved fast and looked bigger than a mink. As it scrambled on to the bank the whiskers and bright button nose made it plain this was that rarest of Broadland’s mammals the wonderful otter (Lutra lutra).
After years of living on the brink of extinction in Britain, otters have made a dramatic comeback and not just in the Broads.
You have a greater chance of seeing an otter on our riverbanks than at any time for half a century. Today otters are being spotted in virtually every river in every county.
Back in the 1970s, otters were nearly extinct. They have made an extraordinary comeback and one linked to other improvements in our rivers, streams, canals and other water courses.
Otters are playful and affectionate with their young, they float on their backs with pups on their stomachs. You may be lucky and see one sitting on the river bank meticulously eating a fish. A large dog otter or a pregnant female might eat as much as four pounds (2 Kg) of fish a day.
Much of the otter’s popularity can be traced back to two important books about the species; Henry Williamson’s 1927 novel Tarka the Otter and Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water.
Maxwell with one of his otters.
Maxwell’s book, first published in 1960, was made into a popular film in 1969 when otters had almost disappeared from both English and Welsh rivers and were quite rare in the Scottish rivers where Gavin Maxwell had set his book and film. Film and book helped win over public opinion in favour of the otter.
At this time the few surviving otters were still being hunted with packs of hounds. The murderous so-called sport was not made illegal until 1978.
Another major factor in the otters decline was the widespread use of DDT and other agricultural chemicals. They drained from farmland and poisoned waterways.
Those chemicals accumulated in fish and amphibians and poisoned the otter at the top of the river-bank food chain.
These chemicals along with untreated sewage and industrial pollution effectively killed our rivers.
The rivers too were being dredged and straightened while banks were being tidied up and steel and concrete pilings installed replacing the soft otter friendly reed fringes. It is hard to dig a holt in a concrete bank.
Those of us who wanted to see British otters had to journey north to Orkney, Shetland or the Highlands.
Banning DDT and the gradual improvement in river water quality started to make the news although it was usually the return of fisherman’s salmon that made the headlines. But as the salmon returned so did the otter.
Today even lucky city folk might see an otter on a early morning canal towpath walk. Such a sighting will make your day.
The man who wrote Tarka.
Henry Williamson wrote his fine book Tarka the Otter in 1927. It made him both rich and famous but there was another, much darker, side to this man.
Williamson was a fascist, an admirer of Hitler and an enthusiastic supporter of Oswald Moseley and his black-shirts.
His writings between the wars were an odd mixture of enlightened environmental wisdom and crude Nazi propaganda.
As well as Tarka he wrote a book called The Story of a Norfolk Farm. Here is an extract.
“One day the sewage of the cities will cease to be poured into the rivers, and will be returned to the land, to grow fine food for the people. One day salmon will leap again in the clear waters of the London River; and human work will be creative and joyful.”
Yet at the same time he was singing the praises of German National Socialism.
He was one of the first join Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.
Williamson attended Hitler’s notorious Nuremberg Rallies and met Hitler himself. Those meetings would lead to his greatest act of treason.
He and Hitler actually planned who would run Britain after the successful invasion and occupation of these islands by the master-race.
Hitler had a man in mind to be the Gauleiter, the Nazi ruler of Britain, and that man was Williamson’s friend T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence, Williamson, and Moseley were all supporters of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as a bulwark against Soviet Communism
Williamson wanted Lawrence and Hitler to meet. The press got wind of the idea and besieged Lawrence’s remote cottage at Clouds Hill, Dorset.
On 13 May 1935, Lawrence wheeled out his massive motorcycle and set off for Bovington army camp.
He had received a letter that morning from Williamson. It proposed the vital meeting with Adolf Hitler.
Lawrence agreed to the meeting and, as his cottage had no telephone, he would send a telegram from the camp telling Williamson so.
On the way back the accident happened.
A number of witnesses saw it: two delivery boys on bicycles, an army corporal walking by and the occupants of the black van that hit Lawrence.
After the crash the van raced off. Almost immediately an army truck arrived to take Lawrence to the camp hospital where he was held under top security.
D-notices silenced the newspapers and the War Office took charge of all communications.
Special Branch officers sat by his bedside; no visitors were allowed. Lawrence’s cottage was raided and many books and private papers taken.
Army intelligence interrogated the two boys for several hours after which their story changed. Now the boys denied ever seeing a black van.
Six days later Lawrence died and two days later an inquest was held under top security. It lasted just two hours, the verdict was accidental death.
Henry Williamson was convinced that Lawrence’s death was no accident. Hitler’s, or MI6’s views were never made public.
Lawrence and Williamson weren’t the only ones to back Hitler. Edward Viii and Wallace Simpson were great Nazi supporters too.
There is one curious footnote to this story. After the fatal accident many locals claimed to see or hear a ghostly motorcycle on the stretch of road where the accident happened.
Because of concerns that these ghostly presences might be a danger to road-users, an official Church of England exorcism was performed each day for seven days.
The first exorcism was carried out on 13 May 1985, fifty years to the day after the fatal accident. Since the exorcisms there have been no further reports of Lawrence or his motorbike. No other road has ever been exorcised.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 5 April 2014