In Otter News: In Conversation with Cork Nature Network

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N K Initials for Niamh Kelly

17th of January 2023

“Eurasian otters are found across Europe and parts of Asia, but in parts of the range their numbers are declining. In Ireland, they’re staying stable enough, but anything could happen so it’s important to protect them” explained Emma. Cork Nature Network (CNN) is an environmental network that is dedicated to “protect and promote Ireland’s Wildlife through education, research and conservation”, and one of their long-term projects is focused on researching and protecting otters in Ireland. Emma Caulfield, a social media officer for Cork Nature Network, shared in an interview with STAND News, how research and education can help to protect otters and other biodiversity in Ireland.

Otters are members of the Mustelidae, related to weasels and badgers, and utilise water for feeding and land for resting. The need for both aquatic and land environments means the usual habitat otters are found in are near bodies of water such as rivers, ponds and lakes. Otters can also live along coastlines but require access to fresh water to clean salt from seawater out of their fur, otherwise their fur loses its ability to insulate an otter from the cold. Emma explained, however, otters are also present in Irish towns and cities such as Cork and “some otters use the urban environment to their advantage; the way foxes do. Otters might eat cat food left out in people’s gardens”. Otters are carnivorous (usually eat meat) and depending on their habitat tend to eat fish and crustaceans (shellfish), and sometimes frogs, rodents or small birds. Emma said otters in Cork City will use the urban environment for their gain as “otters will actually hop onto incoming fishing boats and take a few fish out of the nets”. Otters “only eat for the amount of energy they need so any extra travelling time to cross rivers will disproportionately affect them” Emma said, and so “any habitat destruction will impact otters”. Otters within Irish cities are adapting to the urban environment, and CNN is researching how these otters live in urban areas in County Cork and how they can be protected.

Emma explained that to monitor the otter distribution (where otters are living) in River Lee and River Bride, CNN recently conducted a search for holts and spraints in these areas. Holts are the dwelling places of otters (usually under rocks or vegetation) and spraints are “like fecal markers that otters will leave. It’s kind of like a signal to everyone else, about the health of the otter, what they’re eating, their reproductive stage, if they’ve just had pups or what’s going on. Another otter will come up and you get an idea of what’s going on in the in the area”. Emma is currently involved with CNN in writing another research proposal. This research would analyse what environmental factors may influence where otters inhabit such as tree cover and how holts and spraints on different rives are connected, possibly through nature parks and human-constructed underground storm drains. Emma described the aim of the proposed research as “we want to make a map of basically where the otters could go, what sites are important to them, and what makes the sites important.”

Photo by Mark Zekhuis

Emma began volunteering with CNN after completing a Bachelor’s of Science in Zoology in University College Cork and she is currently studying for a Master of Science in Marine Biology. As well as her role as a social media officer for CNN, Emma has been involved in educational outreach events. During a Science Week event, primary school children could guess what items were in mystery boxes by touch alone at the CNN stand and ask questions about Irish wildlife. Emma said “it’s about getting excited about nature” and “spreading the information we have and making it digestible for people”. CNN also run monthly wildlife photography competitions and post articles on their nature blog. Membership with CNN allows access to newsletters and online nature courses. CNN also run talks about different Irish wildlife. For example, a recent event consisted of a guided tour by John Armstrong along the Cork City Otter Trail that allowed the public to learn more about these animals.

Emma described the otter trails as “the biggest awareness push” CNN has done to educate the public about otters in County Cork’s urban areas. The otter trails follow along rivers in towns and cities with signs to provide information to the public about otters inhabiting these rivers and offers people the opportunity to potentially see otters along the route. The first trail was created in 2020 along the River Lee in Cork City and three other trails have since been added to Bishopstown, Ballincollig and Youghal. Collaborations with Cork County Council, several Tidy Towns and other organisations on the otter trails has allowed CNN to encourage members of the public to engage with wildlife and to raise awareness of otters. Emma said she has seen otters beside the University College Cork biology campus and “even if you’re just passing and you see otters, you’re like `oh otters`. And then you just read off the sign and you get a bit of information”. CNN are hoping to create more otter trails in County Cork and further afield in Ireland.

Photo by Rik Kruit

Aside from the otter project, CNN is also running other projects focused on different areas of Irish wildlife and biodiversity. One of these projects is centred on Beaumont Quarry, an old limestone quarry that is no longer in use. It is situated southeast of Cork City centre and provides an area for recreation and conservation. The limestone environment, similar to the Burren in County Clare, provides a habitat for plants that are rarely found in Ireland. Ecological surveys have been carried out by CNN at the site and these surveys found the area has high biodiversity. The unusual conditions of the quarry allow plants such as Little Robin and Pale Flax to grow. Different animals such as foxes, hedgehogs and several species of bat have also been recorded. CNN is raising public awareness of the site and aims to protect it from invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed, that are not native to Ireland.

Another way for anyone to be involved with Irish biodiversity that Emma recommended was for members of the public to report any wildlife sightings they have with the National Biodiversity Data Centre. These reports of sightings help to establish if and where a species is present in Ireland and how common they may be in an area. Emma highlighted, however, the potential for bias to enter this data as people will only report “if they see something spectacular, like if they see a dolphin. But if they see something normal that they see every day, they don’t always report it”.

Cork Nature Network is raising awareness, conducting research and increasing education about otters and other Irish wildlife through different projects. Emma encouraged anyone interested in CNN to follow them on social media.

Thank you to Emma Caulfield for her support in this article.

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