James Leigh Roslin Williams MA (Hons.) FLS MBE
5th February 1939 – 4th February 2014
All of us have very special memories and thoughts of James, most of which will raise a smile and a feeling of warmth in the telling.
Some of those thoughts and memories are shared below.
- Biographical sketch of James Williams
- James Williams, obituary by Martin Jacoby
- Tribute in Devon Mammal Group Newsletter
- James Williams, obituary by Vic Simpson
- Stanley Duncan Conservation Trophy
- Hounds Magazine – September issue – Michelle Werrett
Peter Mackay writes: James Williams (lives online, April 17) has another claim to fame beyond otter spraints. He was an undergraduate at St Andrews in the late 1950’s, when playing golf on a Sunday was not just a sin – it was a crime. Unknown to the university authorities he kept a gun dog in his rooms, and one Sunday morning decided to exercise it. He took it down to the deserted Old Course first tee and with a putter (he was not a golfer) in full view of the R & A smote a ball down the fairway for the dog to chase. He was promptly apprehended by the local constabulary and put into a police cell until bailed by his tutor. Next day he was fined ten shillings for playing golf on a Sunday – his protestations that whatever he was playing it was not golf was deemed irrelevant. James bore his conviction proudly: his summons and fine receipt were displayed on his study wall as a badge of honour as, presumably, one of the last people in Scotland to be so prosecuted.
James Williams was a giant of a man, one of the country’s leading, if not THE leading- expert on otters, who put Somerset firmly at the forefront of otter monitoring, conservation and research in a way other counties have sought to emulate. An inspiration to a whole generation of students when a school teacher, and to adult naturalists and conservationists in his ‘retirement’.
I have been privileged to know James for 15 years during which time he has been an inspiration, teacher and mentor. His commanding presence and sharp intellect combined with a breadth of knowledge bred of personal experience and research in the field placed him well to the forefront of this country’s experts on the otter; yet he always had time for the complete beginner. His pioneering work in Somerset contributed much to a wider understanding of the species, its place in the balance of nature and its effects of modern countryside management on the broader riverine ecosystems. We have lost a leader and a friend but his inspirational legacy will ensure his work continues.
John Dixon Leader West Somerset Conservation volunteers and former Secretary of the Somerset Otter Group
It is with great sadness that I received the news that James Williams had sadly passed. Could I please on behalf of the Natural England team here at Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve, staff and volunteers, pass on condolences to James’s family, friends and all at the Somerset Otter Group. His passion, enthusiasm and dedication to otters and the natural environment and his leadership of the otter group was incredible and he made a positive and lasting impression on all that he met. He will certainly be greatly missed by all the team here.
Simon Clarke Senior Reserve Manager, Somerset National Nature Reserves, Natural England
It is with great sadness I hear of James passing away. When I first started out on my quest to learn more about otters, I reached out to a number of experts and James was one of the few who took time to speak to me. The first phone call led to a year or two of regular contact and included a visit to us locally for one of his super otter talks…From the first conversation until the last in December he supported and encouraged myself and others to form a small group and start documenting our own Otter populations. His passion shone through every time he spoke on a number of topics but especially otters. He leaves a huge and successful legacy behind him crowned by an MBE for his services to Otters and one I dearly hope is continued. A fine man leaving huge boots to fill and one that will be greatly missed.
Grant Auton the Anton Otter Group
Memories, speaking as one of his Otter surveyors.
Just like to add my condolences to his family, James was and always will be thought of as a great and highly respected man, speaking on behalf of the otter surveying fraternity and even some unfortunate enough to have crossed swords with him once in a while we will miss him greatly. Of all things he always received respect and liking. ‘NOT’ that he’d agree. Great Man.
FIRST ‘ENCOUNTER’ (nearly the last)
Having seen my first otter back in 2002 while fishing near Frome, Somerset (becoming instantly Otter besotted) and later clicking through the internet see there was a meeting about becoming a ‘surveyor’? with other besots at a pub in Ashcott, mate and I went along.
Beer wasn’t up to much but James W was, what a mind of information spanning back decades the man had, with intriguingly, his own father having been ‘Masters of the OTTER hounds’ which totally flummoxed me, until I realised it was they that through their records recognised that this fascinating creature was fast declining and voluntarily, the hunts stopped.
It was during this meeting that I first heard him or rather did not hear him give his theory on how to get an idea of how many otters there were in Somerset, by apparently ‘counting the vicars along its river lengths??’ (never did understand that one)
Anyway I must have been at the bar at the time as missed it and on return promptly (unfortunately) asked ‘is it known how many otters are there etc.
James being James gives me one of his old school masterly, exasperated looks and BELLOWS at me ‘count the BLOODY vicars, man, count the bloody vicars’
I’m about ready to tell him to ‘stick his BLOODY otters in his BLOODY ear’ when my mate informs me ‘he’s just told us that- around seventy- for Christ sake- sit down’
Glad I did as learnt so much from him from there on in to the effect that now I organise the surveyors in Frome and ‘attempt’ (consulting his bibles) to give talks, also privileged to be one of the many to endorse his receiving his well-deserved MBE. (Should have been a Knighthood).
His two books ‘the otter’ and ‘the otter among us’ are the ‘Otter Bibles’ I refer to.
Think you’ll agree a privilege to have known the man.
Tony House Frome branch of the Somerset Otter group
I first met James about fourteen years ago when as one of the newly formed North Somerset Otter Group we came down to his part of the Tone for a beginner surveyor’s day, I was very impressed with his obvious knowledge and immense enthusiasm of otters and wildlife in general.
We did meet on numerous occasions over the years at his talks to various groups, EA seminars, RTA collections, Meare Heath hides, I loved his books and watched him on TV, along with many others I was delighted when he was awarded the MBE, he telephoned me to modestly say, ‘it really is for the whole group you know, not just me’, we know that there would be ‘no group’ had it not been for him.
A lasting memory for me was when he had finished one of his excellent talks at Chew Valley Lakes Woodford Lodge, the meeting was breaking up and getting ready to leave when he pointed towards the Lake and said, ‘What was that, was it a, well maybe not’, most people there thought he really had seen something but his smile gave it away, I thought, what a way to end a talk on otters. He was a fine man and I will miss him.
I met James through our interest in and love of, otters. At the time I was photographing them regularly at Shapwick Heath and my fondest memories, are of arranging walks out to the levels with James, in the certainty that we’d see otters; of course, each time we’d draw a blank. Every time I see one now I will think of James.
I hope for the sake of the otters, that someone with such tenacity and passion will be able to carry on his work, but I fear he may be one of a kind.
I will miss him very much.
There was always humour, always a twinkle in his eye. James once joked to me that the only way to accurately determine the number of otters on a river was to count up the number of vicars living along the river and divide by three!
I will always be most grateful to James for his inspiration. To those who really care about what they’re doing, the world of nature conservation can be a frustrating and underwhelming place at times, but James was always a leader of opinion, debate, and relentless curiosity about the natural world. I know that I am one of many in the industry who remains inspired by James’ drive for useful conservation effort and his refreshing irreverence. He always did give a damn, and greatly, and he loved life and filled it with as much time in the countryside as he could manage. And when I go out to the river on Saturday with the River Bovey otter survey team, for a training session with some new otter spotters – I will be thinking of James, and I know that he will be there with us.
Lisa Schneidau Devon Wildlife Trust
I am so very sad to hear of the loss of James, who has been so inspirational in helping to teach more about the natural world we live in. I have had the greatest respect for his depth of knowledge particularly relating to otters and his passion which has been paramount in aiming to find out more about these amazing creatures. James was instrumental in setting up the first Exmoor-wide otter survey which has allowed us to gain a real picture of otter numbers within the national park as well as training up many volunteers who have been captivated by his knowledge and enthusiasm. He will be very sadly missed.
Ali Hawkings Conservation Officer (wildlife), Exmoor National Park Authority
With a twinkle in his eye and good humour and authority in his voice, James’ determination was infectious. It has been a privilege to have known him and to be a witness to, and, in a small way, a participant in, his unstinting work on behalf of Somerset’s otters.
Although I only met him in person a couple of times, we had some lively conversations. It has made me even more determined to try to find more time to continue the work he loved and spent much of his life doing, even if only in a very small way. He will be greatly missed, as a person, a mentor, for what he has done for otter conservation and understanding, but most of all for his passion for a very evocative animal.
James was a very special person. I hadn’t met him often but I will always remember him. He had a way of making you feel noticed and special too. Possessing the most amazing quick wit, wicked sense of humour, intelligence and knowledge he was capable of keeping an audience entertained for hours with information about all manner of subjects. He is a great loss to everyone who encountered him and will never be forgotten because of his enormous contribution to this world.
How very sad, and such a huge loss to his family, and to all of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.
From my own personal perspective, James was a one-of-a-kind personality – an enormous fund of wildlife knowledge, enthusiastic and helpful in all his dealings, yet a straight talker who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Pam and I will miss his counsel, his wit, and his sense of humour.
In my BASC role, one memory springs instantly to mind. Some years ago on the morning of Christmas Day I had a phone call from a very irate carp fishery owner, complaining that there were half eaten fish on his lake-side bank. From his account I concluded that an otter and not mink, was the miscreant and phoned James for advice. Despite it being Christmas Day, James’ cheerful response was not only helpful, but he also proposed to go out to visit the ‘scene of the crime’ that afternoon. On being given the location his answer was ‘Ah yes, it’s the female otter that has her holt about 1km downriver from the lakes – she only moved into the area two months ago’…. Just one instance of his intimate knowledge of all things ‘lutrine’ in Somerset.
In the last year, James volunteered his services for the BASC River Tone Catchment project, operating mink rafts for my colleague James Green, and contributing much to our ‘mink and water vole’ events.
Outside his riparian activities, James has been a BASC member for several decades, and second only to his otters and fishing came his dedication to training his cocker spaniels as gundogs. An outstanding all round countryman who cared deeply about our countryside and its biodiversity.
Robin Marshall-Ball BASC Southwest Region Biodiversity Officer
Working with James on his book the otter, which we were proud to publish in 2010, I was struck by several things. One was his immense knowledge about his subject, the otter – not necessarily surprising in an author, but far more unusual was his modesty about his expertise. Here was a man who didn’t want to jockey for pre-eminence in his field – he was genuinely fascinated in otters, he wanted to learn more about them and he wanted to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. He wrote: I am not alone in being mesmerised by the unique quality of an otter every time I see one. On each occasion, be it a fleeting glimpse or a prolonged period of observation of behaviour, something about the presence of the creature absorbs me entirely, so it is only afterwards that I can digest what was going on and make some reflective notes. Every otter seems so much more completely good at being an otter than lesser species are at their given metier.’
You could tell immediately that he taught English. He described a mink’s face as ‘a ferret that has been in a pencil sharpener’. He could be lyrical but he was excellent at putting things clearly too. I will remember James’ relaxed charm, his sense of fun, and his professionalism. We all felt it was a delight to work with him.
Karen McCall Merlin Unwin Books
I can’t quite believe that James has gone before. At his meetings I remember his courtesy in greeting strangers and his expertise so that it was always an honour to work for him. I will remember him every year when I visit my otter sites.
James means so much to so many of us.
I will sorely miss the wonderful replies to my enquiring emails. Recently a friend noted beetle cases in her spraints. I passed this on to James who immediately replied, “Very interesting Janet I don’t think I have recorded beetles, but they take snails and dragonfly larvae, so why not. A Welsh bloke found evidence of earthworms back along, but I expect Welsh otters eat strange things as do the people”.
I can hear him chuckling now.
James will never grow old he will always remain the James we all love.
Our first meeting was to talk otters over coffee, you brought otter maps, otter charts, otter lists and otter books. You leapt from one otter subject to another excitedly and left me quite confused but wonderfully enthused. Over the years you became a friend too; one that I will miss very much.
I have so many memories – wading in streams, finding an old holt, trying to catch crayfish, otter watching in Blandford, but my fondest memories are of your little laugh, your warmth, your earnest forthright manner, your sense of humour and your sense of humanity.
James, you have made my life so much richer. I’m so lucky to have shared those moments with you and I treasure them now and always.
It is often said that hunters make the best conservationists and there is no doubt that James, who was a hunting, shooting, fishing countryman, made an exceptional contribution to the conservation of otters in Britain. Although not a scientist, he readily embraced science and was unrelenting in his efforts to contribute to our understanding of the health and well-being of otters. The Somerset Otter Group arose as a product of his enthusiasm, where his ability to organise and inspire people to collect data on otters was remarkable. He first contacted me in the 1990s to see if I would carry out post-mortem examinations on otters found dead in Somerset. At that time my contract with the Environment Agency covered only Cornwall and Devon but James was not one to let something like that stand in his way! He was an immensely practical man and no lover of bureaucracy. My relationship with James and SOG was extremely productive, leading to the publication of several scientific papers on otters and numerous presentations at conferences. James incorporated much of this information into the two books he wrote on otters. When James was a boy in the Lake District otters were common; he saw and was distressed, by their disappearance in the 1960s but revelled in their recovery in the last two decades. We can all applaud the role he played in helping to make this happen. Farewell, old friend.
I’m so sorry to hear the news that James has passed away, I used to be In hunt service and met James quite a few years ago now and also coincidently he taught my ex wife at school. I always had a love and passion for otters and what better person could I have known, whenever we met he would always update me with the latest findings. He was a true countryman and will be very much missed by man and beast.
How to some up what James meant to me – that’s tough. A huge character who made an impact on everyone who met him. So knowledgeable and driven, he cared so much about the otters and the research he was involved in. Sometimes stern, but underneath it all just a lovely man who felt anyone interested deserved a moment of his time.
He was my mentor. He saw something in me I don’t think I saw in myself. He was always there to answer ottery questions and was a constant source of encouragement in my various exploits in the Bristol Otter Group world.
I will carry with me fond memories of our get togethers, often at Shapwick, where he told me how many otters he had seen and after many hours we didn’t see anything. And also of his public talks where he attempted to educate us in his own unique way.
I will miss him greatly.
James Williams was a rare individual who effortlessly crossed the definitions of countryman, fieldsports follower, naturalist and conservationist and a lot more besides. In modern times which revel in division and conflict, these interests are often carelessly portrayed as incompatible or downright opposing. James spanned them with knowledge, charm and a dry wit and seemed only despairing of those that could do something positive but appeared to choose not to. He followed an increasingly rare route to knowledge, based on field observation, experience and analysis in an age when many seemed to solely rely on the written word and factoids repeated by others.
To say his passion and enthusiasm was infectious was testified by his ability to build from nothing the Somerset Otter Group. He inspired individuals of many walks of life to survey rivers for an animal that many have never seen and might still only ever know from a small and odiferous dropping after years of searching. In my minds eye he is always standing, leaning slightly on a long stick surveying the scene, reading all that nature is showing him and becoming part of the scene, more then just an observer of it. We often talked of fishing, with the easy way of those that understand why we do it. He had the skill of a natural teacher, listening just as intently as he spoke. An extraordinary man.
I am so sorry to hear of the death of James. I only met him 18 months ago at the IOSF Otter Conference in Edinburgh. but his talk on that day inspired me to set up an annual otter survey in County Durham using the same methodology that he had developed for Somerset. He was incredibly helpful in answering all my questions both on that day and over the following 8 months as I got the County Durham survey running. The second survey will take place on the last weekend in April this year and it would never have happened without him.
My sincere condolences to his family and friends.
James was different. He listened, he was interested, passionate about things, believed in people and most of all he inspired people. In the relatively short time I knew James, he has had a profound positive influence on my life and the decisions I have made. A wonderful man. a wonderful family. I will be eternally grateful for the blessings that meeting James has brought me.
He was a source of inspiration, knowledge and motivation for the 10 years that we surveyed the River Pill in West Somerset and will be missed by us and by so many other people who knew him.
Sue and Mark Ogden
I had the honour of working with James when organising an Institute of Fisheries Management seminar on Otters and fisheries 2012 at Cannington College, Somerset. We had 100 people in attendance from the angling sector and I was very grateful of his knowledge and expertise in prorating the wider picture of Otters in Somerset.
Will be sadly missed by many.
I first met James in 2004 when we set up a twice yearly survey of the Axe. Embracing parts of Somerset, Dorset and Devon, this involved surveyors from all three counties working together. James always turned out for his sites and provided the summary reports and assessment of otter numbers; he inspired me to extend the same methodology to all of Dorset and he inspired us all with his enthusiasm and knowledge. It was my privilege to learn from him and to collaborate with him on other occasions too. His personal commitment to everything otter extended far beyond the normal voluntary efforts of surveyors and he seemed to be a sort of Peter Scott figure in the sense of having turned from hunter to a conservator. With his angling connections and knowledge he was in the forefront of efforts to educate those fishermen who are beginning to talk about controlling otter numbers already. But the lasting memory of James will be his deadly arrows of caustic wit aimed at the faceless ones in Central Government who seem unable or unwilling to fund otter ‘management’ properly.
He was the same age as me but, as regards natural history, he was my tutor and I will miss him in that role as well as that of a friend.
Mike Lowing Dorset Mammal Group – Otter Section Co-ordinator
I knew James for over 45 years he was a first class gentleman. A true otter man, who loved all sport. In the past I walked the river with James, it’s what he really liked. I often meet him on the Quantock hills following the deer. I’m sorry he has left us.
I am so sad that this happened. As well as being a special person and a good companion, he has made such a huge contribution to otter research and conservation, and was becoming known on an even greater scale. So many initiatives and questions have been raised where we all thought immediately “James is the man for that”. Lots of sympathy to his family. With respect.
We have lost a good friend and a great source of inspiration and knowledge. Our best tribute to James will be to try and continue the research work on otters that he initiated.
One of my memories of James will be that he seemed to have a total recall of any site where he had ever discovered otter signs. He was able to tell one exactly where to look, whether it was a specific rock, a corner of a bank, the end of a culvert or a sandy/stony ledge on the river bank. I think that this will be the same ability that he used as a fisherman to read the river and know where a fish might be lurking.
My condolences to all James’s family. We will miss him.
I have been surveying / recording signs etc. relating to otters over approx. the last 16 years , this includes part of the river “Frome” and upper “Mells” stream.
When I first started, I went to one of James` “2 day” Otter recording events, the meeting that was held on the 2nd. day.
I think it was his enthusiasm, and detailed knowledge of his area that inspired me to continue as I have over the years.
I know it was his “drive” that has made Somerset one of the best detailed Otter recorded counties in the country.
I believe it is thanks to his support that more Otter research is being carried out.
I will miss James much more then I had contact with him, I was pleased to know he was there, should I ever want a sensible opinion on anything wildlife related (or anything at all really!). He was one of those people who you thought, well if James thinks that, it must be ok! He will be much missed.
Very sad about James Williams, I have known him since he taught me English at school. My tribute to him :
James was a fine English Master, who had a great knowledge and understanding of Field Sports and was a real Naturalist!!
James’ affinity with the natural world was both remarkable in its understanding, and the clarity with which he was able to impart it to enthuse others.
His involvement of scientists to help study Otters in depth, to cherish them and his meticulous record keeping, will be just two of his legacies for years to come.
James was a very good friend to all those who knew him, and he will long remain as a glowing memory to me.
He was truly exceptional man.
Although I usually don’t like to look scared or worried at death, I could not avoid to be quite sad in reading about James’ death.
We shared a passion for otters and fishing, specially salmonoids’ fly fishing, and used to have a correspondence, sharing fishing/trip experiences, as well as advices and opinions on otter biology and our lives.
James was very friendly with me since the very first moment we met, at an otter conference, and since then it was a pleasure each e.mail we wrote each other. I have a big regret: James frequently invited me to practicing salmon/trout fishing in the UK, but I never took the time off the work to get there…. Oh, how I wish I would have done so!
Importantly James was a strong supporter of the importance of fostering contacts, collaborations, and discussions among fishermen, otter researchers/conservationists, and fish researchers/conservationists. A vision that we deeply shared. James I’ll do my best to help let such things happen. A kind Hug,
Before I add my memories of James I would just like to pass on my deepest sympathies to all of James’ family and friends, he was a warm, kind man (with a cheeky sense of humour) and I will miss him enormously.
I met James about 14 years ago whilst volunteering at the Somerset Environmental Records Centre, I was helping to co-ordinate volunteers for their water vole pilot surveys and James was on my list. It was the start of a great professional friendship and I had the utmost respect for him and his work concerning the welfare of Somerset’s otters. He was the one who trained me to look for these wonderful creatures and yet I have still never seen one in the wild! I attended a few of his talks and always found them truly inspirational, his passion never waned and he was always as keen to discuss all matters concerning otters as the first day I met him . I always felt they somehow typified him, to me they are majestic creatures but always playful – just as I saw him. Although my part in the otter group has been patchy over the years due to family commitments, he was always accommodating and would regularly keep in contact even if I wasn’t an active member. I am in no doubt that without his efforts there would be no otters in our county. It seemed to me that he almost knew every one – like they were his otter family. I feel proud to have been one of his trainees and a friend, he was a remarkable man of which there are very few like him left in this world. It is a very sad loss for all of us who had the privilege to know and work with him. Rest peacefully dear James.
My daughter has to make a poster for school about someone she admires and she has chosen James.
We came to Somerset a couple of years ago and live by the Tone. The river and its diversity of flora and fauna fascinated us from the outset. A birthday present, a book titled “the otter” by James Williams opened a new window for us: it was not only informative about the title’s subject but also gave us a sense of the character of the author with its humour and gentle style that instructed and informed.
Then before much time had passed we found James standing outside our house introducing himself, and over a cup of tea enthralling us with his knowledge; but in a way which was easy to understand; and answering our questions with such enthusiasm as if it was the first time anybody had asked so naively about the subject of his life’s work and passion. He took us down the river visiting all the places he knew so well, but sharing them with us as if it was the first time he had been there. He described patiently the attributes of an otters paw print and delicately invited us to sniff spraint….like new mown hay it was indeed! He was the epitome of the patient, humble and delightfully humourous but expert teacher we all wished for in our childhoods and but seldom found.
We are fortunate to have met him and will never forget him.
Christopher and Pam Langton
James was a brilliant mentor, good friend and mischievous wit. I first did my otter training with James 12 years ago, when, although using a stick because of an ‘inconvenient’ hip problem, he was up and down river banks like a man half his age. The first bank he beckoned me down saw me land flat on my back in the mud. He immediately came to my side and asked if I had hurt anything, when I assured him nothing more than my pride was damaged, he said ‘jolly good, it could have been worse, you could have dislodged that spraint I was going to show you just under your leg’. I continued the training looking, and smelling like a swamp monster, but I learnt more in that one, half day, session with James than I have in the multitude of training sessions and courses I have attended throughout my adult life.
My thoughts and deepest sympathy to his family and I hope, with the ethics and knowledge James instilled in us in the Otter Group, that his name and hard work will go on for a very very long time.
James Williams’ loss will be keenly felt in so many areas of country life.
I knew James for over forty years and always admired his knowledge of field sports and wildlife.
I was privileged to learn much from him for he was a natural teacher who selected from his immense wealth of experience the items of most interest and use to each individual he took pleasure in informing .
The award of MBE was the fully deserved recognition of a life well spent in the countryside with a receptive and analytical mind.
James will be best known to Otter Specialist Group (OSG), members in the UK as the driving force of the Somerset Otter Group, and pragmatic campaigner for otter conservation, but he will also be known to some members of the OSG outside the UK.
James was a tireless, well-informed and passionate defender of otters, and was active in otter conservation throughout the period of the otter’s slow recovery from the very low number in England in the late 1970s. James had a background in fishing and hunting, a knowledge which added great weight to his strong support for otter conservation amongst some of the groups he influenced.
There are many who knew James much better than I, but his reputation amongst all those who worked with him and knew him seems to be unfailingly one of great admiration and respect for a man who could speak to all levels and backgrounds in clear terms about the need to conserve otters and their environment.
The UK Otter Biodiversity Action Plan Steering Group recognises the significant role he played in education, advocacy and monitoring for otter conservation in Somerset and beyond.
Graham Scholey MCIEEM Chair – UK Otter BAP Steering Group
I can’t believe you’re gone. A day never goes by when you don’t pop into my mind. You were a profound influence on my life, even though you may not know it. You taught me to track otters properly. You taught me to think about eels, and to identify what was in otter poo. Don’t go all flowery and poetic, I hear you say. But you enriched me. When I was setting out as a new author you took me under your wing and became the best teacher I ever had. Humorous, as otter-obsessed as me (no,no,far more otter obsessed), you taught me much of what I know about otters. You expanded my understanding. Most importantly, you taught me to never stop asking questions. I will always remember your voice in my ear on the end of the phone, your cleverness, your great company, and your strength of spirit. Most of all, your wicked sense of humour and wonderful turn of phrase. I can still hear your voice, and I have a lovely photo taken by Lucy on the day you explained the Somerset Levels to me. Thank you for that, Lucy. I will miss you terribly James, but pleased that our time together has been immortalised in my book, (which you were always so kind about). There were still so many more conversations I wanted to have with you.
Till we meet again, cousin, by some otter-loo in heaven; goodbye mentor, otter friend, and all round inspiration. When I think of you, my heart giggles in the memory.
Many many condolences to your family and loved ones.
I only met James last year and it was a very tenuous connection that put me in contact with him, but I am so glad to have met him. Ever since that first meeting I have been amazed at the depth of his knowledge and his obvious passion for otters. He was a genuinely lovely man, who welcomed me into his home so I could have the chance to take part in an otter survey and learn the skills to look for them myself. He taught me to find and identify otter signs and on the occasions he took me out searching I learnt so much from him. He was so generous with his time and was always willing to answer any questions I had and took an active interest in my work. One of my lasting memories is my amazement when James, with his cap and his stick, climbed over a barbed wire fence and crouched under a bridge to double check if what I had seen really was an otter spraint.
His kindness, and desire to pass on his knowledge to others are two of his many great qualities and the excitement and obvious enjoyment that he displayed when we were out together was infectious. Without James, I would not be where I am today and it is our duty to continue his work.
We have lost a truly inspirational man, a man who gave so much and my heart goes out to Elizabeth and the rest of his family at this sad, sad time.
I last saw James in November of last year. Elizabeth, James and the dogs arrived for a shoot on the Quantock Hills in a place where I was waiting with other volunteers to start a day’s conservation work. We greeted each other warmly, pleased at the happy coincidence. James’ animated chatter soon targeted one of his favourite subjects – otters. He pointed out the ditch that gave an otter safe passage to a nearby quarry pool where it gorged itself on frogs. Then suddenly he was off following after Elizabeth and the dogs. Except, Elizabeth returned within minutes because James had forgotten the dog leads. Not for the first time, otters had captured James’ thoughts. How could one not smile?
It’s not only we that have lost a profound friend but the otter also. They however are not aware of it, but then, I suspect James would not want it any other way.
James has always been so helpful and encouraging with our otter surveys and training days. We will miss him and his enthusiasm, brilliant sense of humour and his immense knowledge of all things otter-y! We will always remember him with a smile.
Ellie and Caro Devon Biodiversity Records Centre
I was lucky enough to have many conversations with James about wildlife conservation. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I was inspired by the energy he brought to all matters concerning otters. There can be few examples of such thorough research on a species being instigated and co-ordinated by someone in a purely voluntary capacity. James was very kind in facilitating my research, and gave his time freely. I was always struck by the depth of James’ knowledge, and his ability to recall precise details about the research he had read. Whilst we didn’t always agree on the best way forward for the conservation of species other than otters, our debates were always friendly and thought-provoking. He will be greatly missed.
Dr Fiona Mathews Senior Lecturer in Mammalian Biology & Programme Director for Biology and Animal Behaviour, University of Exeter
I knew James for over 25 years, from my time at Taunton School. Although he didn’t teach me English, he somehow managed to find out that I lived in a house with a garden next to the River Tone – and that I was interested in otters! He taught me a great deal about otters and would regularly take me out on trips to search under bridges for otter spraints. He encouraged me to embark on a sixth form project collecting spraints and analysing them. He always had time to talk about otters in coffee breaks and lunch breaks, and was wonderfully enthusiastic. I’m pleased that, 25 years on, I own an ecological consultancy business, and still spend many hours crawling around rivers looking for otter spraints!
James was a good friend, who always made the effort to keep in touch despite my living over 400 miles away, in Scotland. The last time he visited us, on one of his Scottish fishing trips a couple of years ago, James, Elizabeth and Scarlett took my husband and I out for a lovely meal. I’ve happy memories of that evening. He will be sadly missed.
James was a big man, with big ideas. His huge enthusiasm inspired many. He welcomed me as a fledging (or should I say cub) to the Otters and Rivers Project world of The Wildlife Trusts. He inspired me and flattered me that he could learn things from me and the Cornish otters. We liked to bicker over which county had more otters and then enjoyed working together on the river catchment DNA projects. He gave a passionate presentation at The Mammal Society conference last April and was called a ‘cool old dude’. He laughed at that, although was a little annoyed at being called old. He was good to Devon Mammal Group, attending and speaking at our events. Most latterly he spoke in October of last year to over 100. You would never have known he was ill. He was a wonderful, quirky man and will be much missed. I bet the otters that use the ‘Stoford otter loo’ are wondering where that funny fella is, who meddles with their daily ablutions….
Please pass our deepest sympathy to James’s Family and all at the Somerset Otter group from us here at CATCH Wincanton. We were delighted when James had agreed to come to our fledgling river group to walk our river and advise us what could be done to encourage the Otter population on our little know river called the Cale in Somerset . I only spoke with James twice on the phone but I knew I was talking to a man of great knowledge and humour. I’m so sad to hear of his passing . I really feel that we have lost one of our great conservationists and bastion of the British Countryside.
James has been a significant figure in my life. Firstly as a 10 year old when I started at Taunton School and he had the task of teaching me English for two years. Later he was my careers master, with less success, but that was my fault. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and answered too many of the multiple choice questions with “don’t mind”. So, presented with “I want to work outside” and “I’m happy working alone” James (probably exasperated) came up with lighthouse keeper as a potential career ! I’m an IT manager so work inside, with people – you can’t win them all. However, James did win as a person, very much. I liked a lot of my masters at school but a few of them held a special place and James was one of those. I can’t put a finger on exactly why but he was always very fondly remembered.
Then 20 years ago I joined Taunton Fly Fishing Club and discovered that James was chairman. Initially I came across him when attending the AGM’s and he was always an obviously driving force – very knowledgeable and able to talk eloquently and passionately on various subjects. Ten years ago I joined the club’s committee and spent much more time with him. He was President then but took the role seriously and worked hard for the club. Then I saw even more his passion for fishing, conservation and the countryside generally. He worked tirelessly at improving the lot of both people and wildlife. He always seemed to be able to see both sides of an argument and bridge the gap. He was great to have around at a committee meeting and commanded so much respect.
I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to know James and learn from him, formally initially and informally more recently. He will be greatly missed.
James was the ultimate embodiment of that too seldom understood truth that ‘hunters are the best conservationists’, as his love and understanding of otters sprang naturally from an otter-hunting background. His generous friendship was bestowed lavishly on people of all persuasions, bringing together many who might otherwise have had little to say to each other: ardent conservationists opposed to hunting with those truly passionate about hunting. James inspired them all to work together for their common love of otters.
James attributed his deep understanding of otters to hounds, who taught him so much about this elusive animal. Hounds operate in the same way as otters; not by sight as humans generally do, but by scent. A sprainting rock, for example, is chosen not for its visibility but for its position in relation to the way the prevailing wind carries the scent across a bend of the river. That makes it a prominent position from an otter’s point of view. Once that principle is understood, as James taught so many of us, finding and interpreting an otter’s work becomes logical. This was his legacy to us. Even identifying an otter’s spraint can be doubtful for the inexperienced peering at a dubious dark blob on a shady rock; but just smell it! Then the immediate, vibrant nature of the animal that left it becomes clear: a sweet, wild, musky scent of pebbles and water weed and fish and of the eternal, untameable current.
My first direct encounter with James Williams was not an auspicious one – he bawled me out for being in a school corridor trying to make a phone call when he was obviously convinced I should be elsewhere. However, once I got past being terrified of him, I found him an engaging and inspirational teacher who helped both to ignite my love of words and to strengthen my love of nature ( double English would, on occasion, be replaced by “double Hunting,” when he would collude with our sidetracking tactics – our syllabus was wide indeed!)
I feel privileged to have stayed in contact with him over the thirty-odd years since those days and to be able to consider him a friend. Our meetings were rare but treasured and always gave rise to fascinating and thought-provoking insights about the natural world. On the last occasion I saw him he was in great form and clearly delighted about his Linnean Fellowship and MBE – both so well deserved.
He was a man who achieved much; he made great strides by attending to the smallest details and it is clear from all the tributes paid to him that he never stopped teaching and inspiring those who worked with him. He was respected, admired and, above all, liked and it is an achievement which perhaps equals any of the more obvious ones that he will be so hugely missed by so many of us.
I would like to add my tribute to a great man James Williams, and his wonderful work on the European Otter which is so important, he will be sorely missed, best wishes to his family.
It is with much sadness that I read of dear James Williams passing. I have many memories of his English lessons in the 6th form building, I was among the first intake of girls from Weirfield and the Masters at TS did find us quite a challenge, not entirely sure how they should treat this new breed of scholar. As my tutor he often invited us back to his house on a sunday where – for some strange reason – we seemed to enjoy being employed as leaf-rakers but there was always a good lunch as a reward! Spending time with James and his wife and family, then still very young, (we’re back in 1972/3,) was always an afternoon to look forward to. We were in touch quite recently on the award of his MBE which pleases me. My sincere condolences to his family. What a character, he will be much missed. Love and blessings,
Kirsten Luckins read this page and wrote;
I was dimly aware of the name James Williams because during this month of research various ads for his books on otters have popped up in my peripheral vision, but I had no idea he had been awarded an MBE for his conservation work, “for services to otters”.
I am slightly twisting today’s prompt, turning it from an ‘I remember’ poem to an ‘I don’t remember’ poem about James, inspired by the wonderful contributions on his memorial page at the Somerset Otter Group. What a man, how I wish I had known him.
In Memoriam James Williams MBE
I don’t remember James, with his cap and stick, and his little laugh.
I don’t remember him pushing down the barbed wire and legging over,
trotting back-heeled down the bank to check a turd – dog or otter?
I never ran into him under bridges, peering at dubious dark blobs
on known sprainting rocks, those infamous otter-loos he patrolled.
I don’t remember the anatomy of paw-prints he never taught me,
don’t think of eels because of him, still have no way to catch crayfish.
When I look at a riverbank, I see only the stones that are visible,
I don’t remember to follow my nose along the breeze, across the bend,
I don’t remember to see the land like a musk-talker, a scent-dweller.
Never have I bowed at his delicate request to sniff what otters leave –
“a sweet, wild, musky scent of pebbles and water weed and fish
and of the eternal untameable current”. But how I wish I had.