Adank winter’s day in the Steel City did not hold obvious promise of the transformative power of nature. But not far from where a gaggle of office workers were enjoying a fag break, a friendly conservation volunteer called Paul ushered me down a ladder to an otherwise inaccessible spot on the banks of the river Don. I found myself, like Alice down the rabbit-hole, in a new sort of country, a lush carpet of floating weeds and a swift-moving ribbon of clear water at my feet muffling the sound of traffic and freshening the air.
Paul and his colleague Karon were checking hidden cameras for a lottery-funded survey of Sheffield’s small otter population, called Otterly Amazing! The motion-sensitive cameras have captured these shy creatures, hunting successfully in a river so polluted when I was a boy in the 1970s that it would literally catch fire.
That’s not all they’ve recorded. Two urban explorers, wearing waders and headlamps, were once filmed emerging at the dead of night from the black entrance of an underground millrace near where we stand. And while he removed the camera’s memory card, Paul told me this one had recorded the same moorhen dozens of times in one month, with the final footage showing it in the jaws of a mink.