The duck killer identified

Some of my khaki Campbell ducks on the pond

It’s difficult to get on with any work with these wee squirrels around. I watch them for hours and I’m gradually getting better at distinguishing the main two that come to the garden (I’ve only once seen three so this might in due course throw my ID theories out of the window). The ‘resident’ squirrel, which is visible burying nuts most of the day, comes down the ‘squirrel feeder’ tree on the right hand side. It definitely has a (very) slightly darker tail and lacks the light coloured tip to its tail that the ‘interloper’ has. The interloper (in the garden only in the morning and late afternoon), when leaving the feeder, usually jumps – no, leaps – to the next tree, a distance of some five feet, then runs down that trunk. The other afternoon they seemed to have established a sort of truce: while one is burying a nut the other obtains a nut for burying from the feeder. This seems sensible to us and clearly works for the squirrels.When I was watching them the other morning a weasel ran past the bottom of the ‘feeder’ tree. It was tiny and, though I suppose it could kill a squirrel if it got hold of it, I didn’t think it would be much of a threat. If it can catch some of the rats and mice that come in about then it is more than welcome. I saw it half an hour later, still in the same area and running round a large fern. I’ve not seen it since, though I did see a weasel two days later running across the road near the house of one of my neighbours. Maybe the same one, but maybe there is a litter of them on the go. There was a tawny owl in the garden the other night. It would take a weasel as well as a mouse or rat. It’s a hard life being a wild animal.

My grand-daughter, Freida, was recently working in the garden emptying some of the flower pots on the front and back steps of their now frosted plants. She asked me if I had been burying peanuts in the flower pots. I know who the culprits are!

So back to the missing duck story from the last episode: the missing duck coincided with a missing rat trap. I have two tunnel traps set for rats from September to April near the shed where the ducks spend their nights, safe from foxes.  These catch about 40 rats per annum which, if left to breed, would overrun my garden.  On the morning at issue when I let my ducks out – and realised I was one short – I also saw that the two concrete roof tiles forming the top of the tunnel had been knocked off. Closer inspection revealed the Fenn trap (a break-back trap) was missing. Strangely there was a very young rat lying near where the trap should have been, and appeared to have been left by the mystery culprit in exchange for an adult rat in the trap. This is not the first time this has happened: the same thing occurred around the end of July. I found the trap lying 20 yards away at the side of the burn, with the remains of a well-devoured rat still attached. At that time I thought the culprit was a mink, and borrowed a couple of live-catch mink traps from gamekeeper George Simmons, without success. With the missing trap and the missing duck, I was still thinking mink.

The following morning I had let my (now 15) ducks out just before dawn. I was busy filling the bird feeders and was about 30 yards from the pond where the ducks were now happily swimming. Suddenly there was splashing and panic coming from the pond, with the ducks making a swift exit from the water (this is contrary to their normal defensive strategy when a sparrowhawk or buzzard comes past, as they invariably dive into the water). I saw the cause of their terror – an otter swimming amongst them in the pond. The burn was running very high and the water was discoloured, which was maybe a saviour and prevented the otter catching a duck in seconds. I ran to the pond, shouting and waving my arms. I got close enough to the otter that I could have clattered it with a stick, had I had one, and it scarpered through the grid from the pond into the burn – close on the heels of a duck that had taken the same exit strategy!

I was sure the fleeing duck would be doomed, since it would be half swimming, half flapping, down the burn ahead of the otter. To my surprise it reappeared on the drive some ten minutes later, none the worse for its adventure. The remainder of the ducks had meantime taken refuge in the wood as far from the pond as they could get, in fact it was two whole days before they entered the pond again. And I don’t blame them.

It’s amazing how many people to whom I have related this tale have said, “I didn’t think an otter would take a duck.” They most certainly would, as would their smaller North American mustelid cousins, the mink.

I love seeing otters, but I don’t want them eating my ducks. The ducks are now put to bed earlier and released from the shed later. There is no rule that says an otter won’t take a duck in daylight, but I’m reducing the risk.

The otter is protected, as a European protected species, under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) Regulations 1994. It is an offence to deliberately or recklessly capture, injure or kill it. I didn’t do that.  It is also an offence to deliberately or recklessly harass it. Did I harass it when it was trying to get a meal? I looked for any relevant defences or exceptions in the legislation. None.  Did any of those who drew up the legislation keep ducks?

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