You fooled me for that first instant, curled up in the same tussock of reeds as the otter had, three weeks ago. But your size gives your identity away, between stoat and otter, similar to the cat curled up on the sofa at home. After your size, your shade: sandy, paler than expected, as if the strong sunshine this afternoon has bleached you like the dead grasses the river has strewn across your tussock. You don’t care about any of this, or us, stood a few metres away, almost directly above you by the wall that separates roadside from riverbank. You’re only bothered by the kayaker paddling in the middle of the river, raising your head over the tussock to see, watching and waiting for the kayak to turn towards you and –
Off. The mink shoots through the water between the tussock and the wall, below the algae and floating plastic bottles, hidden by the over-hanging greenery growing from the cracks in the sandstone.
A pause. I assume it has absconded, performed the sudden silent vanishing act of which all animals are capable. But then it bursts up through the greenery, vanishing into a hole in the wall below our feet.
A few seconds later a head, neck and shoulders emerge.
It is now at its least otter-like. The head is triangular, topped by a pair of rugby-players ears, tapering to a fine button snout, not the broad-jawed, luxuriously-whiskered face of an otter. Its two shining round black eyes are ringed with paler markings, which are also smudged around its snout. The fur should be uniformly dark brown, but this a genetic throwback; a clue to its origins as an animal bred for fur, its pelage valuable, skin fashionable, bred by degrees away from the norm. I reach for new comparisons: cat, stoat, red panda, each one slightly more ridiculous than the last. Then it vanishes, dives into the water, swimming away with a jerky front crawl, each limb paddling, working the water, as awkward as I would be.
It is electrifying. The combination of the surprise encounter, the view close enough to see its nose sniffing the air, its body thrumming with breath, its lack of fear of us. The encounter has all the wild magic of any with a muscular mustelid, that fleetingness, as if it is up to them whether they grace your day with their presence. The sliding-doors timing: if not now, then perhaps not for another few years.
And yet this is tempered. Nuance descends.
I’m not supposed to like mink. The wild qualities I see in the animal are not the wild qualities of the River Nith. Ecologically speaking they are a murderous square peg in the round hole of the British ecosystem. The rap sheet reads: destroyer of the water vole, the salmon-run, and the ground nesting birds on the river’s gravel islands (or, potentially, with their wall-climbing skills, the sand martins that exploit old pipes in the built sandstone banks). The local Facebook group of wildlife enthusiasts dissolves into vitriol and invective whenever a picture of a mink is posted without an outraged caption. But nuance works both ways. They belong in American ecosystems, not ours: it is not their fault that they were put here by the forces of farming and money-making that we wrought across the world, when we spread British species across the globe with similar effects as this mink.
It is hypothesised that the resurgence of otters in British rivers is having a negative effect on the mink, that otters out compete mink for food and territory. Yet here was one basking on the same tussock on which I saw an otter spend an hour eating a lamprey a handful of weeks ago. This is not evidence to disprove that theory, of course. It’s not evidence of anything at all other than existence. It is just an observation that further heightens the division in my mind: that I can be thrilled by the encounter, and at the same afraid of what it means.