Over the last number of decades , the otter along with many other wild species went into decline across Europe . In an effort to conserve threatened wildlife species the European Union established a network of conservation sites known as Special Areas of Con servation. These sites are protected by law and the EU member states are obliged to pr otect the listed species on which each designation is based. T he Munster Blackwater River is listed as one of these site s of species conservation interest for salmon, lam prey species, freshwater pearl mussel and otter. A number of birds and plants are also listed. In addition to protection of the designated site , the EU encourages local communities to get involved in the conservation of these species and have a fund which assist s in such conservation efforts. The fund called LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU. IRD Duhallow and their partner Inland Fisheries Ireland were successful in acquiring th is funding to complete works to improve the Blackwater SAC and is the first community based group in Ireland to be awarded LIFE funding .
Otter are one of the target species of the IRD Duhallow LIFE project . The European otter is an iconic Irish animal sp ecies which was much more widespread in former times. It is regrettable that there are still individuals who take part in the illegal sport of otter hunting under the misguided view that otters are pests. Scientific evidence show that they are not and sinc e 1976 otter hunting has been outlawed because of the cruelty involved and because otter was in danger of becoming extinct . This dark furry mammal is most usually found near watercourses, hence the common Irish name for it, “an Madra Uisce”. T he works on t he project occur within the Duhallow area of the SAC. IRD Duhallow LIFE identified the need to improve the habitat for European otter (Latin name: Lutra lutra ) in the River Allow catchment. The River Allow itself is an important tributary of the Munster Bl ackwater particularly for salmon and trout angling . A programme of measures were drawn up to both enhance the habitat of the otter but also to increase public awareness of the specie.
A first report which documents a baseline for the species in the River Allow catchment has just been completed by IRD Duhallow LIFE and is ready for submission to the EU. This report outlines the areas in the river catchment where o tter are known to occur. Surveys were carried out from April to mid June following the stan dar d guidelines for otter surveys in SACs. The surveys concentrated at upstream and downstream areas of bridge sites, with additional sites added where bridges did not occur. A total of 51 sites were searched by the project team and Rural Social Scheme worker s along the three main rivers in the project area; the River Allow, the River Dalua and the River Brogeen. Evidence of otter occurrence was highest on the River Allow at 60% of sites compared to only 10% in the Brogeen. Whilst the converse was found for ot ter tracks with 50% of sites on the Brogeen showing activity with similar numbers on the River Dalua . Key features surveyed varied from logs and boulders on river banks to exposed tree roots and shingle along the water margin, bridge aprons , to trails runn ing through meadow grass land. Otter activity was noted to be high at a number of specific locations uncovere d by the project team during a separate walk over survey. Well worn trails and slides were noted immediately above Raheen Bridge and downstream of Johns Bridge on the River Allow . A mother and two cubs were also observed feeding and playi ng downstream of Raheen Bridge .
The project also identified a number of important fishing pools for otter and som e of these are associated with l arge woody de bris d ams . Large woody debris d ams are e ssentially wood debris from trees which have washed down the river to become jammed at certain key locations where the y form a stable beaver dam like structure. These structures are known to provide important functions to rivers from dampening of flood water energy to the provision of shelter for fish and other aquatic species.
The data collected on the distribution and the occurrence of otter has been entered into a database together with other relevant habitat statisti cs. This forms the baseline for the first year of the project. Subsequent studies will be benchmarked off this data as the project progresses. An important element of the project is the placement of otter holts or specially constructed breeding boxes in ar eas where habitat may be lacking. The baseline study is an important step in the process to identify are as that are potentially suitable for otter but w here holt sites are currently not available.
The primary aim of the study was to identify areas in the River Allow catchment, where otter activity is low in order to direct habitat improvement works. In addition, the survey provides a baseline of otter activity in the Allow River catchment against which future changes c an be compared should change in the ot ter population occur over the project period. I f there is anybody who would like to know more or get involved , don’t hesitate in contact ing the project team at IRD Duhallow offices at ( 029 ) 60633. The IRD Duhallow LIFE project is supported through the LIFE financial instrument of the European Community