This most elusive mammal was more common here than in most countries in western Europe.
Many years ago, in a column similar to this, Brother Daithí Fitzgerald left me aghast as he described the anticipated arrival of men and otter hounds on the banks of the Clodagh river to hunt, capture and kill the most talismatic of all Irish mammals, the otter.
This most elusive mammal was more common here than in most countries in western Europe. Unfortunately, the fur of the otter was highly prized as it is thick, waterproof and extremely hardwearing and so it has been hunted and trapped in Ireland for a very long time.
In 1408, John, son of Dermod, was charged with two otter skins for his rent for the year . In 1430, a passage on the Irish trade with Chester mentions otter skins as one of the products traded while the skin is mentioned as used for muffs, waistcoats, etc.
There are extensive customs records for those shipped out legally, an average of 345 per year from 18th to the 19th centuries. The slaughter continued until 1976 when under the Wildlife Act the otter was protected. That ended policies like bounty systems etc.but then arterial drainage began and created a habitat of reprofiled and generally steep banks, silted waters and rank vegetation.
With a huge reduction in the eel population which formed almost half of the otters’ food intake and threats to freshwater crayfish, it seemed that this mammal was in big trouble. Diverse counts of trout and salmon kills in the research did not help. But from our observations here at Cabragh over the last few years, the otter is alive and well and contributing to the wonderful diversity in the little Killough river and the stretch of Suir between Touhy’s bridge and Holycross. It belongs to a family that includes pine marten, mink, stoat and badger but is larger than all. Its Irish name is more descriptive, An Madra Uisce nó Dobharchú. When you examine it at the Cabragh Wetlands Centre, you will notice that its body is long, muscular and streamlined. The tail is long and flattened and tapering to a point. The ears are small, rounded and almost buried in the fur of its flat head. The eyes are also situated towards the top of the head which means that it can keep most of its body underwater while its nostrils at the top of the snout are equipped with long sensors which are important for foraging underwater.
The dense coat is usually dark brown on the back and grey brown on the underside. The guard hairs are long and oily while a dense layer of fawn underfur traps air so that the skin never gets wet and makes the otter glisten underwater. This air layer reduces heat loss and prevents hypothermia which is a perpetual risk for otters since they spend up to eight hours a day in the water.
Smell is the most important sense in detecting threats. Their hearing is particularly sharp but their sight is poor on land. In clear water they hunt by sight but in murky water they detect their prey using their whiskers.
While they might look ungainly on land, they are at home in the water. They may rest in the water with only the nose, and eyes breaking the surface. When swimming they usually show only the top of their head and part of their tail whereas the mink rides relatively high in the water. When hunting underwater they may remain submerged for up to forty seconds but eight to ten seconds is more usual.
We know there are otters in Cabragh because of the spraints we regularly find as they emerge onto the banks. Their holts are underwater natural recesses usually accessed among root systems of trees like the ash. They are general considered to be nocturnal and are mainly active after dusk and just before dawn.
Heritage week is usually a very big week in Cabragh and this year it offers a great opportunity to celebrate outdoors. This Wednesday, August 19 we host the Big Dig from 11am to 3pm with workshops at 11,1 and 3. You must book on Eventbrite.
On Sunday August 23, Water Heritage Day we host three free events. At 3oclock we wander the wetlands concentrating on our colourful plants with Anne Lloyd. At 4oclock Michael Long takes us on the Cosmic Walk, while at 5oclock Jimmy Duggan in a personal odyssey explores the links between wetlands and literature as we saunter along the pathways.
Hope to see you there. We will need your contact details and please wear a mask.
Slán go fóill.