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Some like it otter on Tarka's trail

Devon County Council is using Henry Williamson's novel as a stimulus for environmental work. Jonathan Croall reports.

It is all here in Devon, if you just happen to see and hear and smell it." So wrote Henry Williamson, author of that classic story for all ages, Tarka the Otter. Now, nearly 70 years after the book's publication, the varied rural landscape he so faithfully described has been christened Tarka Country, and visitors are being actively encouraged to see, hear and smell it for themselves along a newly created 180-mile Tarka Trail.

The trail is part of Devon County Council's Tarka Project, set up to protect and enhance the special character of the area, and preserve its wildlife. Based on Barnstaple, and including 31 miles of former railway line, it enables walkers and cyclists of all ages to explore the route taken by Tarka during his journey up and down the Taw and Torridge rivers, across Exmoor and Dartmoor, and around the coastal estuaries.

The book of Tarka the Otter, never out of print since publication, is often used as a stimulus for environmental work, especially in primary schools. Its meticulous description of wildlife and its wonderful feel for the countryside, make it especially valuable as a basis for looking at ecological, environmental and biological issues.

A good starting-point for work on such topics is the new Tarka Centre in the Museum of North Devon in Barnstaple. Its small but informative exhibition describes the important place of otters in a river's ecosystem, while covering topics such as habitat, breeding, adaptation and diet, as well as the threats to rivers and wetlands from pollution, misuse and neglect.

There is also information on Williamson's life (his centenary is this year) and a small collection of his books and personal belongings, including his otter pole and hunting horn surprisingly, Tarka's creator took part in otter-hunting.

The museum provides resource sheets on otters and rivers. There are also opportunities in the centre for hands-on experience. "It's about gently exciting young people rather than lecturing them," says curator Jerry Lee. "Instead of labels or an essay on the wall, we want people to explore things themselves."

One excellent base from which to explore Tarka Country is the Wembworthy Residential Outdoor Education Centre, a converted Victorian school with a stunning view across the fields and farmlands around Eggesford. The centre is used by groups both from Devon and outside the county for environmental studies, especially in history, geography and science.

The Tarka Project tries to discourage visitors from using their cars. I called in to the centre on a mountain bike hired in Eggesford, after travelling on the Tarka Line between Exeter and Barnstaple, a fine way to catch the meandering Taw valley section of Tarka's journey.

At certain stations on the line you can pick up an Adventure Pack, which has information on local wildlife, and suggestions for activities and follow-up work, all linked to the valuable conservation efforts inspired by Tarka the Otter.

o Further information from the Tarka Project. Tel: 0237 424625 The Wembworthy Centre. Tel: 0769 80667. Museum of North Devon. Tel: 0271 46747.

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