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Waste Watchers

A group of English naturalists make a moving discovery

Author Hannah Stuart-Leach Illustration Peter Oumanski

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BRISTOL, UK – “You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got something very smelly in my rucksack,” says a sprightly middle-aged woman named Gill Brown, squatting to retrieve the source of the unsavory aroma.

“You always have something smelly in your rucksack!” responds a woman who, like Brown, has been trudging through the woodlands of southwest England in search of otters—a marginal pursuit, even in this part of the world, but not as marginal as it was a few years ago. Having edged close to extinction in the 1970s, England’s otters are bouncing back, and so are the binocular-wearing naturalists who make a hobby out of observing them. There are indications that an otter may be at large right here in Nightingale Valley, an invigorating prospect for the 20 or so spotters accompanying Brown today. Recalling the first time she saw one of these beguiling creatures, Brown peers over the top of her glasses at her husband and asks, “Would you say it was life changing?”

“Well, it certainly changed my life,” he says, rolling his eyes. Brown then produces a vial of spraint, or otter dung, from her rucksack, and encourages everyone to familiarize themselves with the aroma, which is remarkably unpleasant.

As the day wears on without a sighting, a sense of gloom descends. But then, scouring an area beside a muddy brook, Brown raises her hand, her eyes fixed on something in the shadows. At this moment, her cellphone rings. “I can’t speak right now!” she shouts into the device. “I’ve found some more spraint!”

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