The European otter is an iconic Irish animal species which was much more widespread in former times. This dark furry mammal is most usually found near watercourses, hence the common Irish name for it , an Madra U isce. People fortu nate enough to encounter ot ter, o f ten remark on its intrinsic beauty and playfulness; if the observer is patient enough female otters can sometimes be seen playing with their young as they teach them the essential skills necessary for survival in later life. 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 Conservation. These sites are protected by law and the EU member states are obliged to protect the listed species on with each designation is based. So for example, the Munster Blackwater is listed as a site of species conservation interest for salmon, lamprey species, freshwater p earl mussel and otter. A number of birds and plants are also listed. In addition to protection of the designated site (the river and banks in this case) the EU encourages local communities to get involved in the conservation of these species and have a fu nd which assist in such conservation efforts.

IRD Duhallow were successful in acquiring this funding and is the first community based group in Ireland to be awarded this type of EU Funding. Totally just under 2million euro including matching funding from I reland IRD Duhallow are working to improve the Blackwater SAC in the Duhallow area for everyones benefit. Otter are one of the target species of the project known as Duhallow LIFE . T he actions occur within the Duhallow area of the SAC and the funding is ad ministered under the EU LIFE programme. IRD DuhallowLIFE and its partner in the project Inland Fisheries Ireland identified the need to improve the habitat for European otter Lutra lutra in the River Allow catchment. The River Allow itself is an important tributary of the Munster Blackwater 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 the publics awareness of the species.

A first report which documents a base line for the species in the River Allow catchent has just been completed by 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. As otter are a secretive animal, the surv eyors had to rely on methods which do not require actual direct observation. As Dr. Fran Igoe of the project explains “Otter are generally a shy animal and therefore don’t normally wait around to be counted. But methods have been developed by resea rchers o ver the years as a proxy to direct observation. These methods mostly entail the observation of evidence of otter activity rather than observing the animal itself . Such evidence includes footprints, tracks, slides and trails through the undergrowth and the unsavoury task of spraint identification. Th is is th e art of sifting through otter pooh, no not to tell the future (although it could be an index of what is happening to a river as it is possible to identify for example food items, fish bones etc. in the s praint, and so from this researchers could tell if a new fish species has been introduced if the otter started to predate on it) . Spraints identification is a very reliable way to tell if otters are about. We carried out our surveys from April and mid June following the stan dard 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 Rura l Social Scheme staff along the three main rivers in the project area; the River Allow, the River Dalua and the River Brogeen. Otter spraint occurrence was highest on the River Allow at 60% of sites compared to only 10% in the Brogeen. Whilst the converse was found for otter tracks with 50% of sites on the Brogeen showing tracks. Sprainting sites varied from logs and log boulders to exposed tree roots on river banks. However in a number of cases , spraints were found on the edge of runs running through meado w 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 t he River Allow . A mother and two cubs were also observed feeding and playi ng downstream of Raheen Bridge . The data collected by the survey team also indicates that river width may be an important factor , dictating otter occurrence possibly relating to the availability of food . We found that m edian river width for sites where otter activity (spraints) were noted was 7.5m, compared to only 4m where none were found . Interestingly otter tracks were recorded in five sites on the Brogeen whilst spraints were on ly found at one site. This clearly indicates that either method when used alone may under estimate otter activity. ” The project also identified an number of important fishing pools for otter and some of these are associated with Large Woody Debris jams . La rge Woody Debris jams 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. We have noted a high incidence of otter occurrence at two of these structures and we hope to study the relationship more in 2012. So if there are any stude nts out there who would like a nice project, don’t hesitate in picking up the phone and contact the project at 02960633. The data collected on the distribution and the occurrence of otter has been entered into a database together with other relevant habit at statistics. This forms the baseline for the project 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 const ructed breeding boxes in areas where habitat may be lacking.

The baseline study is an important step in to 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 with future changes could be compa red should change in the otter population occur over the project period. The IRD Duhallow LIFE project is supported through the LIFE financial instrument of the European Community

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