The otters of BBC Winterwatch were filmed just a short walk from the Scottish Parliament, but there are many more mammals to see.
The secret of Edinburgh’s otters is out. What was once a whisper on social media has been broadcast by the BBC: everyone knows that Holyrood’s lochs have monsters. The otters on Winterwatch last month, filmed just a short walk from the Scottish Parliament, were spectacular, but there are many more mammals to see in the capital.
Start with the coast around Eastfield. In the evening, as the crowds on Portobello Beach are heading home, grey seals hunt among the rocks. It’s easy to forget how large these predators are: males can grow longer than three metres and weigh more than three hundred kilos. But with bottlenose dolphins and a humpback whale spotted in the Firth of Forth, they’re not even the biggest thing in the water.
Smaller hunters favour the wooded south. Burdiehouse Burn Valley, a local nature reserve, is the place to catch weasels. These small, sausage-shaped cousins of the otter are famous for taking prey many times their size, including rabbit and grouse. Unlike stoats, British weasels rarely change colour for winter, so they should be easy to spot in the snow. You’ll see them running across your path as you come by the river.
The Royal Botanical Garden is one of the few businesses still open in Edinburgh. Apart from the highlights of kingfisher and, in some years, waxwing, there’s another resident waiting to be discovered. Park wardens report strange noises in the night. Their pristine lawns have been dug up. These are signs of badgers which, with a little patience and a lot of luck, might be found by the public on calm evenings.
But after the airing of Winterwatch, many will have their heart set on an otter. The stars of the BBC were filmed at Dunsapie Loch, where they're still visible, though nothing like as regularly as last year. Park rangers tell me that Duddingston Loch and Figgate Burn are just as good, but the smart money is now on a walk up the Water of Leith. Traditional advice is to wake up early in the morning for a chance to see them – but not always. Videos on YouTube show otters catching pigeons in the middle of the day, ambling across cycle paths and ruining their reputation as elusive animals. The hour of twilight after work, in March between 5 and 6pm, is when I've seen them best. You might feel cooped up during lockdown, but seeing mammals on your daily walk can bring a sense of freedom.
Otter photograph by Ross Lawford. More of Ross' photography can be found on his Twitter (@Otter_Tracks1) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ottertracks1981). His book, Otter Tracks: From the River to the Island, can be purchased on Amazon.