Life on the wild west coast Archive

oter head, tail and ripples. November Skye. Lutra lutra

House on the point, otter hotspot

otter flat on flat water. November Skye, Lutra lutra

otter flat on flat water. November Skye, Lutra lutra

 

I walked along the beach back to the House on the point at lunchtime. The sweeping bay to the south was mirror smooth on a windless November day, the low sun highlighted any disturbance on the surface, a ripple nearly 1km away. Binoculars turned the ripple into an otter diving and bringing small fish to eat on the surface. Lunch forgotten I sat on the table in front of the house and looked more carefully.

 

House on the point

House on the point

Among the ducks and gulls near where the stream runs into the bay two more otters probably a mother and near full grown cub. Further round the bay on the stony gorse fringed beach another mother with two smaller cubs was teaching them to hunt by dropping a small flatfish into the shallow water. I scanned further east over the Sound of Sleat where the turning tide was beginning to churn the surface water, another lone otter was fishing in the deeper water of the channel.

 

looking south from House on the point

looking south from House on the point

Including the two otters I had been watching earlier that morning to the north near the Kylerhea ferry slip I had seen nine otters within a short walk of the House on the Point where I was staying. The fierce tidal flow forced through Kyle Rhea brings in fresh food making the sheltered waters a magnet for otters, white tailed eagles, seals, fishing ducks, gulls and porpoise.

 

Kyle Rhea north from The house on the point

Kyle Rhea north from The house on the point

In the winter months the Kylerhea ferry is closed and the rugged rocky points small sandy bays are left to the wildlife. This people free part of the year is when I come to Kylerhea, probably the most reliable place I know for feeding my obsession for watching otters.

 

Otter looking down from rock. November Skye Lutra lutra

Kylerhea otters in November

House on the slip – Kylerhea Skye

Across the inky water the head and following v-shaped ripple appeared from around the rocky outcrop. Seconds later, the otter dived pointed tail last, leaving the sea like a black mirror. 7.00am in November the sun has yet to rise at Kylerhea. Colours are muted, almost monochrome, and the tide is running out. We are still in bed with a cup of coffee looking north up the narrow sound between Skye and the mainland through the huge picture window in our bedroom. We have been staying here four days and have seen otters from our bed every morning; hunting for fish and crabs and coming up the rocky shore in front of The House on the Slip.

Otter swimming to the shore, Skye November. Lutra lutra

Otter swimming to the shore, Skye November. Lutra lutra

 

I have been to Kylerhea many times over the years, mostly in winter when the ferry is not running and the rocky shoreline and beaches are deserted. The landscapes and ever-changing light are captivating and addictive. But what draws me back are otters; I have never failed to see these fascinating animals when I have visited Kylerhea.

 

Jeanette and Dave Campbell live on a croft at Kylerhea and they have always been very welcoming. In summer I have camped in one of their fields and they kindly let me use their kitchen and bathroom. My wife and I have also stayed at their iconic cottage “The House on the Point” which, on a stormy winter night, feels as though it is built in the sea. In the summer there is a ferry from Kylerhea to the mainland. Jeanette and Dave bought the deserted cottage next to the ferry slip several years ago; Dave’s long project to renovate it has finally finished. “The House on the Slip” is where we are staying.

 

House on the slip - Kylerhea Skye

House on the slip – Kylerhea Skye

The traditional two up two down cottage has been made very comfortable with wooden floors, stone walls, central heating and modern bathrooms and kitchen. But the outstanding feature is the two-storey extension on the north end with huge picture windows in the upper bedroom and in the sitting-viewing room below. Both rooms, which are connected by a spiral staircase, have mesmerising views with the constantly changing light and weather. At the highest tides the sea is only a few metres from the cottage but it retreats more than 50 metres twice a day because of the huge tidal range at Kylerhea.

 

The tidal range is why Kylerhea is so attractive for otters and the other abundant wildlife. Twice a day the tide races up and down the sound. Powerful fishing boats struggle against these tides, often appearing to be stationary even though they are at full power. Each tide brings in new food and flushes out waste. Often schools of small fish appear to be boiling in the surface. Flocks of gulls and cormorants feed in the water, swept along by the tidal currents up and down the sound. They are swept past the cottage only to fly back, passing by many times on each tide. The shore is lined with waders and fishing ducks such as mergansers. If the many herons that line the shore crabbing in the seaweed fly up together it is sign that a sea eagle is cruising through the sound. Watch the water for only a few minutes and seals can be seen swimming, diving or just resting with their blunt heads pointing upwards.

 

House on the slip - at low tide

House on the slip – at low tide

Although there is an abundance of wildlife at Kylerhea, seeing it can be a challenge. North west Scotland is a tough place to live and the weather is constantly changing so that in winter a rain-free day is a bonus. Otters are best seen in the morning, especially if the tide is low, but they are elusive and hard to spot and even when seen they can just melt away. Some days it can take hours to see an otter and trying to get photographs takes infinite patience.

kelp, sun and low tide. November Skye

kelp, sun and low tide. November Skye

 

The house on the slip is the perfect base for wildlife watching and photography. Seals, otters and seabirds pass up and down the sound, sometimes only metres from the cottage’s huge picture windows. But for that heart stopping close encounter with an otter you must go out and spend time close to the shore. After a day taking all that a Scottish winter can throw at you returning to The House on the Slip is very welcoming and the views from the huge windows mean you miss nothing.