Protecting Nature with a Good Yarn: Otto the Brave and the Minks

We’re delighted to publish this guest post by Edinburgh-based copywriter Sarah Stewart. It’s the first time her writing has featured on this blog, but hopefully not the last.  

Otter and Mink

We environmentalists can get very bogged down in facts and figures.

We can’t do without them, but facts and figures don’t make you care about the environment. To care, people need to be able to relate to whatever needs saving, to be involved emotionally in its survival, and nothing does this better than a good, old fashioned story.

Here’s an example:

This month, Deadline News reported that a brave and furry-ocious lady otter was kicking some invasive mink butt along the Water of Leith.

A menace since they began to escape from UK fur farms in the 50s, American minks have since indulged in a great coot-moorhen-turn-water vole feast that has lasted half a century and devastated native populations. Leith’s resident mink slayer, nicknamed Otto, is one of a recovering otter population reclaiming its rightful place in the ecosystem that is Britain today.

Now, my background is in English, not ecology, and the last thing I remember of biology before everything went black was raising a shaky scalpel to the belly of a supine toad, but this mink problem has me riveted. Why?

Because the otter is cast as brave and loyal defender of his friends against a misguided foe in need of a lesson in respect. This is why I get into conservation, because it’s my favourite stories come to life!

Deadline’s swashbuckling description of Otto warrior princess (the “single brave otter… reducing mink numbers in some 24 miles of the Water of Leith”) put me in mind of another plucky otter whose friends could always count on him “if there’s a head that needs to be punched.”

Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows also inspired The Independent’s environmental correspondent, Geoffrey Lean to put otter and Otter together for his July 2000 article on the otter population’s positive effect on water vole numbers.

The article is a charming read, showing just how Otter’s valiant defence of his friend the water rat is played out in real life. In The Wind in the Willows, the stout Otter and his friends keep the weasels and stoats from overwhelming Ratty, Mole and Mr. Toad just as otters help restore a dwindling water vole population by going after the invasive American mink.

What do I think that environmentalists should take a way from this example? Most of us can grasp the idea that birds, trees, water, insects, voles, otters, stoats and weasels as well as human beings have a place in a finely tuned ecosystem.

But the next time you find yourself trying to garner support for a green agenda, give that idea real weight with a great storyline. When gifted writers and artists (Kenneth Graham, Beatrix Potter, Brian Jacques) translate ecology into human terms, saving noble otters and water rats becomes as exciting as our bedtime stories.