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By Pond and River by  Arabella Buckley
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THE OTTER FAMILY

ABOUT five o'clock one fine morning in May, Tom, the gamekeeper's son, was examining the traps set for weasels, stoats, and other vermin. His way led him over a bridge across the river, and as he came near it he heard a strange whistling noise.

Now Tom was a Devonshire lad, and all country boys in the West of England have sharp ears for the calls of animals. Tom knew that this cry came from a father or mother otter who were fishing in the river with their little ones.

Just below the bridge, where the bank was [39] very high, there grew an old willow tree, with branches hanging over the river. The water had washed away the bank under the willow, so that there was a big hole between its strong roots.

Now Tom knew that this hole was the home of some otters. Many a time the otter-hounds had stood in the water near this hole baying with all their might. But they could not get in, and the otters took care not to come out.

The hounds were far away now, and every-thing was very quiet in the early morning. So Tom lay down in the thick grass at the top of the bank and waited. By-and-bye on came the otters, swimming smoothly along with only their noses above water.

The old otters swam so quietly that Tom would not have known they were there. But the young otters were playing and twisting about, so that first their brown furry backs, and then their white bellies, shone in the light of the early morning sun, and the water splashed about them.

The river was very broad in this place, and just opposite the willow was a small island. Tom was so well hidden in the tall grass that the otters had no idea that he was there. So one by one they scrambled up on the island, each with a fish in its mouth. Then they each took hold of their fish with their front feet, and began [41] to eat just behind the head. They ate on till they nearly reached the tail and then left that.


[Illustration]

OTTER EATING FISH.

While they were eating, Tom could see what they were like. They had long bending bodies, and broad, flat heads, and their mouths and noses were short and broad. Their feet were webbed like duck's feet, but each foot had very sharp claws at the end. Their fur was a lovely soft brown, but the long hairs on the old otters were coarse, and they did not look so soft as the little ones. Their tails were thick and strong, and very useful for helping them to swim.

The father tore the fish with his teeth quite fiercely, and sometimes threw small pieces to the young ones, who had soon finished their tiny fish. At last all was eaten up, except the heads and tails. Then the father otter slid down the bank, and the others followed him, and they all went to fish again.

There are fewer otters than there used to be in the rivers of England. But they are still to be found in many places. Only, if you want to see them at home, you must get up early in the morning.


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