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Lutra lutra

The sea is cold and quiet these weeks; a freshening visit to the shore seems for many unnecessary  with endless icy weather streams from the North. Marine life is consulted and found through other  means in spells such as these. One such mammal which is represented in more than its fair share of  poetry and literature is the otter whose scientific name is the musical Lutra lutra and occasionaly  better known in the West as the not very wild sounding water-dog. West Mayo’s sometimes resident Michael Longley highlighted some of its ecology to conclude a poem about mortality when he wrote:

I watched a dying otter gaze right through me
At the islands in Clew Bay, as thought it were only
Between hovers and not too far from the holt.

The holt being its home constructed in the river bank and a hover a resting place for passing a part of the day. Lutra lutra is one of our most intriguing marine animals perhaps because it is not marine at all. It has a cousin which is restricted to the sea, the Californianotter, but Ireland’s otter is as terrestrial as we are. Its forays to the shore are a consequence of living beside the tide and if it is born to an inland holt it will only know the bog runs and freshwater streams of that area. Its diet is also as varied as ours and will switch from fish to shellfish and urchins if availability is low which increasingly happens due to coastal pollution. A study of otter spraints (droppings) in Clare Island in 2007 by a student of NUIG’s department of Zoology suggested seaweed may even be a part of diet at times.

Their mystery and strong lore may also stem from their impressive elusiveness. I can count with two sightings: one jumping in the kelp on a sheltered shore; another running bravely along an exposed beach and ultimately into the small waves where it faced us and mocked my curious dog.
If the halting northeasterlies turn back to the southwest quarter and the shore is welcoming again, look for the otter in areas where freshwater comes close to the sea. The otter needs to rinse the salt from its dense fur after a fishing session to maintain the fur’s insulation property, so the low duachs west of Louisburgh or townlands beginning with Barna- (Barna means passage to the sea as Gaeilge) are good places to catch one returning from the tide at sunset.

The Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra) is a semi-aquatic mammal from the family Mustelidae. Otters are usually territorial solitary mammals, except in the case of a family group consisting of a nurturing female and cubs. They grow to over 1m in length, and a large adult can weigh as much as 12kg. They have five webbed toes on each foot and a powerful, rudder-like tail which aids swimming. Their claws are sharp and strong for gripping food such as eels and they have especially powerful jaws. The home range of otters is 3-4Km in coastal populations. The Otter has undergone a decline in Europe throughout the 20th century and is extinct in much of central Europe. TheOtter is protected in Ireland by both the Wildlife Act 1976 and the Wildlife Amendment Act 2000.
This article appeared in the Mayo News edition 02-03-10

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2 thoughts on “Lutra lutra

  1. Sorry to hear you don’t often see otters in your neck of the woods. In Aberystwyth, across our shared Irish Sea, we are lucky to have regular visitors to the small harbour here. They may be attracted to the brackish-water fish to be found in the little estuary here.

    Sadly a couple of years ago a local lobster fisherman here is reported to have pulled up his pot and found a drowned otter in it. The fisherman was saddened by the “bycatch”.

    Some lobster (and crab) fishermen place their pots too close to the outlet of rivers and harbours. This is bad for two reasons:
    [1] The ropes and tackle that are associated with the string of pots or keeper pots pose a hazard to navigation (prop fowling) so near to a harbour.
    [2] Bycatch of Otters is avoided.

    I’ll keep a watch on your website!

    Friends of Cardigan Bay
    Steering Ctee. Member

    Posted by Jim Field | March 2, 2010, 8:58 pm
  2. Thanks for your comment, for some reason it ended up in my spam folder, so thats why it hasnt appeared before now, and that is interesting about an otter getting caught in a pot – I’ve never heard of it before.
    John Paul.

    Posted by irishmarinelife | April 14, 2010, 1:24 pm

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