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Our Blue Planet

The delicious scent of otter poo

By Jim Manthorpe

Otter spraint (poo) is one of the least offensive smells in the world of excrement; it has a slightly fishy - pungent odour. It is a delight.

Filming wildlife on the west coast of Scotland is not always easy. The wind and the rain do all they can to scupper plans for the perfect shot. Add to that the elusiveness of some of the wildlife and it makes for quite a challenge. But I love it here. I've had the pleasure of filming golden eagles in the mountains and pine martens in my garden but when I want to film one of my favourite subjects I head for the loch.

A few miles from my home there is that rarest of things: a sea loch with no roads on either shore and native oak woodland on the hillsides above it. It's not the easiest place to get to but it's worth the effort. It feels wilder without the noise from traffic, boats and people. All I can hear is the water rushing against granite boulders, oystercatchers piping and the tremulous call of the curlew.

The waters are black and deep green. It spins in eddies where the fresh water, tumbling from the hill, mixes with the brackish seawater. As the tide recedes, great heaps of caramel bladderwrack are revealed, limp and bedraggled across the rocks. At the water's edge tangled beds of it float on the surface, steadily rising and falling with the swell. This is the place I hope to find what I'm looking for. I watch for its lithe body slipping in and out of the weed. I know they are here because I can see the signs: tight trails through the shore-side grass, weaving between rocks, and bright green tussocks fertilised by spraint: otter dung.

Otter spraint (their poo) is one of the least offensive smells in the world of excrement; it has a slightly fishy - pungent odour. It is a delight. Whenever I see it I plant my knees in the grass, lean over and draw its delicious smell into my lungs. I look up to the wet rocks and the grey sea with that scent pulsing towards my brain and I feel immersed in the world of the otter. It's the next best thing to seeing the animal itself.

Waiting for otters can be a long and slow event but it is not boring; it gives you a chance to look and watch at what else is going on. An oystercatcher in its tidy black and white suit hops across the rocks, probing its orange bill in among the pebbles. Up comes a mussel, gently held by the tips of its bill. Later a heron alights by the shore. It sits there hunched, with a grumpy face, like an old man waiting for a late bus. And then with a loud 'cronk' it lifts off with great arced wings, like a modern-day pterosaur. Suddenly, there's a burst of spray as an otter's head pops above the water. It is swimming to shore with something in its jaws; a scorpion fish maybe. It slips onto the mats of bladderwrack to devour its catch. A hooded crow lands nearby waiting to pick up any scraps.

I sit quietly on the rocky shore, filming the otter. Every now and then I look up to remind myself of the bigger picture of where I am: alone by a narrow loch, framed by hills cloaked in sessile oaks. And there on the shore, just above the lapping waves, an otter eating a scorpion fish. It has taken me two hours of walking with heavy camera gear to reach this spot. There are easier places for me to film otters but this place is undisturbed and unadorned by any human infrastructure. It has that essence of wildness that so many places lack.

For me, being in these wild places is important. It gives me a sense of belonging. I'm not just an observer but an intrinsic part of a beautiful and intricate wild world. It's very easy to get distracted from it by immersing oneself in a parallel world of human invention and technology. And I do get distracted, but when I am out by the loch with the otters, I am reminded of the value of the wild world and my place within it. Everyone needs that connection for their own sake but also the sake of the world itself. If we don't engage with the natural world it's impossible to appreciate it, and if we don't appreciate it, we find no reason to look after it.

Jim Manthorpe is a wildlife cameraman based in Highland Scotland. He has worked on a number of wildlife TV series including Springwatch.

By Jim Manthorpe