Sunday 22 September 2019

Country Matters: Chittering otters on the riverbank


Joe Kennedy

Jerome Reilly (of this parish) was watching an otter (Lutra lutra) along the Liffey near Leixlip basking in the morning sun. He found the sighting "very cheering". A West Cork reader saw one at Roscarberry, while a regular Boyneside correspondent reports sightings of these beautiful animals along the water meadows at Slane Castle.

These shy hunter-fishers are being regularly noticed although they are usually elusive and nocturnal in their habits. More otters in the waters and the wild should mean fewer American mink (Mustela vison), aggressive predators whose numbers exploded after escapes into the wild from fur farms, a profitable business in the 1960s.

Rapidly breeding wild mink soon appeared to have the run of the countryside, a menace to poultry and ruthless predator of pond and river life. They are fearless creatures. I was once 'challenged' by one on a track to a trout pool, standing defiantly and only scuttling off to shouting and gesticulating.

One person who kept exotic fowls managed to trap a mink between concrete blocks - after it had done its dirty work - until a local fur farmer took it away.

I once visited a mink farm and found it a "loathsome experience" as Brian Vesey Fitzgerald once described eating a grey heron! But these were profitable cash enterprises. Afterwards I had the misfortune to drive through run-off slurry washed by heavy rain onto a road and no amount of passing through pools of water would remove the stench. Power hosing and strong disinfection were required.

For a time there was a concerted effort at trapping wild mink to cull but it had little success. These animals have black or brownish-black thick and soft fur with a white throat patch and, for in-river identity, show a tip of tail above water whereas an otter does not.

Otters, much bigger at about five feet long, were at one time hunted by packs of trained hounds with followers - like beaglers, who hunted hares with dogs. The animals were once taken for their pelts and, in the long ago, I knew a woman novelist who had an otter coat!

Otters look clumsy on the riverbank but once in the water they turn into sleek, streamlined creatures in pursuit of fish. They also take frogs, young mammals and small water birds. Otters live in holts tunnelled into soil, often behind large boulders. Two or three kits are raised and these stay in the holts for about two months until they can fend for themselves.

Fortunate observers have spoken of one of the most charming sights in the wild of otters being playful on a riverbank and, as the naturalist Gordon D'Arcy has put it, "uttering their cheerful, chittering calls when circumstances afford them sufficient security."

This 'madra uisce' has been with us a long time, its image being found on stonework and early Christian tracts, and so it will hopefully remain.

Another animal still being persecuted, the badger (Meles meles), reports say, is preparing well for the coming season. One keen badger-watcher in Louth reports that animals are gathering more bedding than is usual at this time and this is a sign of a hard winter ahead!

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