Members of public asked to help spot one of Ireland’s most elusive mammals – the otter

National Parks & Wildlife Service leading latest survey of protect species

A new national survey of Ireland’s otter population is being embarked upon with members of the public requested to report sightings of the mammal or signs of their presence. The species is among the most elusive mammal in Ireland, although its population is believed to be in a healthy state here, unlike in other parts of Europe.

Otters are mostly active at night and most typically seen at dawn or dusk. They may be spotted from bridges swimming in rivers or along the rocky seashore. They are brown, about 80cm long and can be seen gliding along the water surface before diving to show their distinctive long pointed tail which is almost as long again as their body.

The otter and its habitat are protected under the EU habitats directive which requires Ireland report on its every six years. The next report is due in 2025.

The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) is launching the latest survey and has teamed up with researchers in Queen’s University Belfast and the National Biodiversity Data Centre.


The new survey will compare results to the last survey conducted in 2010-11. NPWS teams will be looking for characteristic signs of otters at more than 900 sites including rivers, lakes and the coast.

Members of the public are asked to keep their eyes peeled for otters and to get involved in this national survey by adding their sightings to survey results.

NPWS mammal specialist Dr Ferdia Marnell said: “The otter is one of Ireland’s most elusive animals so getting as many people involved in the survey as possible will be important if we are to get good coverage. Otters are rarely seen, so instead, over the coming months, NPWS staff will be searching for otter tracks and signs.”

Otters have large, webbed feet and leave distinctive footprints though these can be hard to find. “Fortunately, otters mark their territory using droppings known as ‘spraints’. Otters deposit spraints conspicuously on boulders along riverbanks, logs on lake shores or the rocky high tide line. Spraints can be up to 10cm or 3 inches long, black through to white but commonly brown, tarry to powdery in consistency and straight or curved making them tricky to identify” he explained.

“Luckily, they commonly contain fish bones and crayfish shells which are the otters favoured diet making them easy to tell apart from the droppings of birds and other mammals.”

“While NPWS teams will be out conducting fieldwork research, people can play their part in giving us a complete picture of otter numbers in the country so we want as much public participation as possible ... The public plays an important role in research such as this that ultimately helps us to develop the evidence to inform policy,” said Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan.

The otter suffered significant declines across the UK and much of continental Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s but remained widespread in Ireland. The most recent Irish survey (2010-2011) found signs of otters from all counties of Ireland and from seashore to mountain streams.

The otter hunts in water, but spends much of its time on land, and as a result is vulnerable to river corridor management such as culverting, dredging and the clearance of bankside vegetation, as well as pollution, pesticides, oil spillages, coastal developments and road traffic.

Members of the public can learn more about otters and submit recordings of otter sightings at the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s dedicated web page:

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times