Monday, 27 February 2012

Otter encounters in Asturias

A faint splash and a tail flicking from the water. An otter! After months of looking, this was our first Asturian otter and since that sighting 3 years ago it has become somewhat of an obsession.

Two rivers meet in the Asturian town of Arriondas. The fast flowing Río Sella born in the Picos de Europa mountains joins with the slightly calmer Río Piloña. Both are prime otter territories with trout and eels providing their staple diet. A solitary male otter can travel far, sometimes covering 20 kilometres, whilst the females (and young) tend to remain in one section of the river.

Otters are considered extremely shy, mainly nocturnal animals, so it has been a privilege to learn their routines and observe them so frequently during the daytime. Our sightings can range from the briefest of glimpses to a full-on otter watch, the record being for over 2 hours!

They appear accustomed to the background noise of human activity and also seem tolerant to a distance close enough to photograph with a long lens. However, spotting them on a foggy, dark morning can be difficult, especially as they tend to navigate the river swimming low and clinging to the bank. As we have often frustratingly discovered, if spooked, otters can vanish at will.

Otter eating a piece of lamprey.

An otter's mind is dominated by hunting. Their relentless pursuit of food provides good watching opportunities. They can be totally fixated on the task in hand and luckily for us less distracted by people nearby. Our most thrilling encounter was an otter catching a lamprey, both species can be rare enough to see, let alone together. A lamprey is a scarce, jaw-less, eel-like fish and only able to survive in clean waters. We witnessed a male otter hunting a lamprey of 1.5m in length and it took a further 15 minutes to subdue its violent struggling. The fully grown lamprey is a large meal and the otters often cache pieces and eat them over several sittings.

Fresh otter tracks.

As with all wild animals, the signs they leave behind often provide useful clues. During long torturous 'no show' periods, otter spraint (excrement) and tracks offer some comfort and help us learn about their routines, favourite places and diet.

Other wildlife that inhabits the river provide a welcome distraction to our daily walk. The ducks and moorhens can sometimes give us a heads up to an approaching otter, freezing like statues or fleeing in panic tends to be their strategy. Although duck is on the menu and they certain make attempts, I've not seen an otter successfully hunt one.

Kingfishers, dippers, wagtails, grey herons, little egrets, short-toed treecreepers, woodpeckers amongst others are also plentiful and them alone will make any walk worthwhile.

However, the sight of an otter remains the richest reward, always leaving us craving for more and in turn encourages you to look more closely and with luck encounter something new.

Our most recent sighting of an otter cub

Entrance written by John Shackleton.

A photo blog of wildlife watching in Asturias can be found on his web page

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Early Spring Flora on the Farm

The lesser Celendine

Like most of Europe we have had a lot of cold weather over the last couple of weeks, but now warmer weather has come, the snow is melting and the days are getting longer. The mistletoe no longer has any berries as the birds have eaten them all. Yes it feels like we are saying goodbye to winter and spring is coming and with the beginning of spring there are more and more flowers to be seen on the farm.

The lesser Celendine is one of the earliest spring flowers and gives a lovely splash of gold. It is more common in the damper shadier areas of the farm.

The Dog's tooth Erythronium

The Dog’s tooth Erythronium grows in the shady and humid mountain areas of Southern Europe. It’s not so common on the farm, but I saw quite a few plants with their lovely flowers in the Castañarina meadow this afternoon. It’s much easier to find in the higher mountains where the marginal pastures can sometimes have a pinkish tinge due to the large numbers of this flowering plant.
The Green Hellibore

The Stinking Hellibore

There are two types of Hellibore found on the farm; the Stinking Hellibore and the Green Hellibore. The Stinking Hellibore has drooping cup-shaped flowers which are yellowish-green, often with a purple edge to the five petal-like sepals. The Green Hellibore is slightly smaller than the Stinking Hellibore and dies down in the autumn so in the spring all the visible growth is new. Hellibores like lime rich soil and are very common on the farm. All parts of the plant are poisonous and none of the animals eat them.

The Common Dog Violet

The Common Dog Violet is most often found on short, grazed calcareous turf and limestone scree. We have a lot of that type of habitat on the farm and at this time of year there are a lot of Common Dog Violets in flower to be seen. This plant is an early nectar source for butterflies and is the larval host plant for a range of Fritillary butterflies.


Another very common flower to be seen on the farm is Lungwort which flowers over quite a long period of time. The scientific name Pulmonaria is derived from Latin pulmo (the lung). In the times of sympathetic magic the spotted oval leaves of P. officinalis were thought to symbolize diseased, ulcerated lungs, and so were used to treat pulmonary infections. The common name in many languages also refers to lungs, as in English "lungwort" and German "Lungenkraut".


The primroses are also starting to flower on the farm and when the first primroses start to bloom its said they herald the arrival of spring and warmer days to come.


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.