Where otters dare, all is right with the natural world


ANOTHER LIFE:It’s an age since I saw an otter. On sorties to the strand, somewhat rarer now, I check a tuft of grass at the freshwater pool where a stream runs out to the channel. Green and lush from repeated doses of nitrogen, it bears the remains of the latest spraint, the otter’s dropping; a tarry morsel with a musky, not displeasing scent.

And then, walking the tideline, I watch for the track of an otter, bringing its fish – small and flat, mostly, from these sandy shallows – across to the dunes to chew among the marram. Or else, where the strand meets a rocky headland, tracks where an otter cuts up through a cleft in the dunes to a little marshy lake, there to rinse the sea salt from its fur.

There have been grand encounters, each good for a column or a marvellous minute of film: otter besieged by a raven for its fish; otter skipping past Michael Longley’s shins as paddled in an autumn surf; otter ascending the highest dune to pause at the frozen shadows of the Vineys and their dog. Now I rest content with the occasional trail of prints – the slanted arc of toes around the pad is precise and distinctive as a potter’s mark.

Otters hold so much of the essence of the wild, or as much as this island can boast. Where there are otters, water is clean, fish can flourish, banks have proper holes to rest in, people largely mind their own business – all’s reasonably right with the natural world.

And so how amazing to be told of the 11 individual otters living in and around the centre of Cork city, feeding on eels, salmonids and crabs (and occasional, incautious rats).

To know it’s 11, and not the same ones several times over, needed a close survey and a high-tech laboratory. In the summer of 2011, spurred on by zoologists from University College Cork, volunteers from the Cork branch of the Irish Wildlife Trust began looking for otter signs across the city: spraints on ledges and rocks, tracks in mud.

The spraint gave up not only the otters’ diet but also their sex and individual DNA, analysed at Waterford Institute of Technology. Most were female, and some formed part of a family group. The number has startled the scientists. It may prompt a wider DNA study to explore the commuting patterns of the otters, a species already known to range over 20km or more.

In Britain, organochlorines in agricultural chemicals played a big part in the severe decline of otters that began some 50 years ago: by the 1970s, they were wiped out in most of England.

Commuting habits

In Ireland, the cattle country of Co Cork produced a notorious level of run-off pollution and huge fish kills. It inspired “remedial” drainage that carved riverbanks into canals, sweeping away the stands of willow and alder that gave otters a place to rest. To know the commuting habits of Cork’s city otters might show how much they use Munster’s farmland rivers and how much they depend on the richer, cleaner ecosystems of estuaries and coast.

As European cities clean up their rivers, the return of fish and otters is a measure of recovery. In the UK, where captive otters were bred for reintroduction, one found beneath the wharves of London’s East End confirmed the long restoration of the Thames.

The animals enliven the citizen blogs of Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow’s River Clyde – and in Dublin, a young otter fishing in daylight in the Liffey below Heuston Station now stars, if fleetingly, on YouTube. And Eye on Nature has reports of them downstream as far as Millennium Bridge.

At my undisturbed corner of the Mayo coast, the innocent otter feels safe by day, but as an urban commuter it still mostly prefers the night. Traffic noise seems not to worry them, given nature’s own rush of wind, and an urban network of deeply-channelled waterways offers less temptation to take short cuts without looking both ways.

Ireland’s national road schemes have construction guidelines for wildlife underpasses with otter-friendly ledges, but road casualties are still a leading cause of death among the Republic’s 12,000 or so otters and hasten their steady decline.

A national survey of about 600 otter deaths in the 1980s found more than half killed on the roads. Most were the more mobile and adventurous males, and many, as it happens (16 in five years), died along the same stretch of highway along the Lee, coming to Cork city. On the biodiversity website biology.ie, a map of 116 otter road deaths in 2012 still puts striking clusters of them in Co Cork, from the city west to Bantry, with another cluster around Limerick city.

As I wrote here in 1996: “We have signs for drivers: ‘Beware Deer’ – why not for otters?” Meanwhile, in Cork, Dr Paddy Sleeman ( p.sleeman@ucc.ie) would still like to hear of any dead or injured animals.

Eye on Nature Your notes and queries

A pair of blackbirds are nesting in an outdoor Christmas tree in the courtyard of the medieval museum in Waterford since early January. They take turns sitting. Will the eggs hatch?

Rosemary Ryan Waterford

Possibly, if severe weather doesn’t kill them. Incubation takes 13-15 days.

On New Year’s Eve I saw pigeon chicks in a nest under the air-conditioning vent on a building in Longford. The owner of the building said it was the fourth brood that year. Is it unusual to have birds breeding at this time of year?

Paul Higgins Longford

Feral pigeons can breed all year round when there is a local food source.

When I moved some leaf litter a number of narrow, brown organisms disappeared fast into the lawn, jumping or rolling. They were hairless, shiny and about 7mm when legs and antennae were folded.

John Mullins Cork

They were wood hoppers (Arcitalitrus dorrieni), also called lawn shrimps, from the photograph you sent.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address

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