Albert’s Wild Journeys (Part 1) – The Otter

Albert’s Wild Journeys (Part 1) – The Otter

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Albert Nolan, wildlife and nature correspondent for The Clare Herald, travels the highways and byways of Clare to study and write about the County’s rich biodiversity.  This month, Albert writes about the Otter.

European Otter (Lutra lutra). Pic Bernard Landgraf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
European Otter (Lutra lutra). Pic Bernard Landgraf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The narrow headland jutted out into the sea and reaching its wave battered tip had entailed a good hours walking of hopping over ancient stone walls in the early morning light. We have spent the previous day on Spanish Point beach and with everyone still in bed I had snug out for a few hours of exploring. It was well worth the effort as I had the whole place to myself and the only noise was the sea pounding over the fragile stones.

I was looking at some beautiful Sea thrift flowers when I saw a slight movement around 20 meters away.

Instinctively I dropped down and slowly trained the binoculars and was thrilled to see the sleek outline of an Otter out searching for his breakfast. I have rarely seen an Otter and been this close to one is a privilege. He continued to feed but some instinct must have warmed him that danger lurked nearby and he paused and looked in my direction. I held my breath but with a quick look around he disappeared up the river that flows into the sea at this point. My encounter had lasted only a few minutes but it had been an amazing experience.

Otters are native mammals but are very secretive and most of us only get the occasional glimpse as they slip into their hidden under water world. Since the 1960s there has been a slow decline across much of the continent but the population in Ireland has generally been stable. It is estimated that we have up to 10,000 individuals but a new mammal survey been conducted online by the National biodiversity centre should help give a more up to date figure.

The species of Otter in Ireland is the Eurasian and this is found across Europe and as far as China and Japan. It is a member of the Weasel family and this also includes the Badger and the Pine martin. Fully grown adults can be up to a meter in length and they have a flatted head, with a thick neck.  They also have several important adaptions. Their eyes are located at the top of their head so this means they can just break the surface of the water without revealing the rest of their body and make sure the coast is clear before returning to the riverbank. Its nose is also well located so it can snatch a quick breath without the need to completely surface.

They can be found along small and large rivers, urban locations to coastal lagoons and upland areas. Their main requirement is access to fresh water and this is essential for sea side living Otters. If the salt is not washed out its fur becomes matted and loses its insulation qualities.   They also need a sufficient food and resting and nesting spots.

Otters. Pic: Neil Gould
Otters. Pic: Neil Gould

Each male keeps a territory that will overlap with several females. This can vary in size. On a good river with plenty of food it averages around 7km but on a poor upland stream they will need at least 20km to make ends meet. They mark their territories with spraints and these are very fishy smelling. They are left in prominent locations like under bridges and on boulders. They convey a lot of information about the breeding status of the Otter and warn other males that this stretch of the river is inhabited.

An otters den is called a Holt and these can often by up to 1km from the water. They also use resting spots called “Couches” These have multiple escape routes to ensure a quick getaway. Artificial Holts have proved successful in locations where no suitable place exists along the river bank for Otters.

Breeding takes place mainly in the spring and for the rest of the year Otters are solitary creatures. Pregnancy lasts two months and the female gives birth to two –three cubs. These are blind at first but quickly mature on their mother’s milk. Eight weeks later they take they first trip outside and it takes lots of practice to get proficient at hunting at swimming. Barely half a year after been born they make their own way in the world to try and establish their own territory.

Otters are mainly nocturnal but activity peaks during dusk and dawn. Coastal animals work around the tides as they forage in rocky pools and in the seaweed. Diet consist of Salmon and Trout, Crayfish, frogs, water birds and crabs.

Otters are my favourite creatures and if you have ever seen one you might let me know. Comments/Questions to albert.nolan@rocketmail.com or 089 4230502.

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