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Urban Otters

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Otter.  Photo: Richard T. Mills


Conservationists, like those in the County Nature Trust, argue that pristine ‘wild’ rural nature reserves are needed. They are therefore disconcerted by the existence of carnivores in urban areas - for example the ubiquitous urban fox and urban otters - which suggests that clean rural habitats are not needed to maintain these carnivore populations. While this is certainly true for a scavenger species such as the fox - is it true for otters?


Like most cities all over the world, most Irish cities are, for historical reasons, coastal and on estuaries. This means that there are dense resident fish populations in the rivers of Irish cities, at least of those fish which can survive the filth that our conurbations produce, as well as migratory fish passing through to breed. This in turn means they have populations of otters, the top predator of the Irish river ecosystem.


Otters are seen quite regularly at night on the River Lee in Cork City. In a contribution to Cork City of Culture 2005 we surveyed otters in Cork City over 18 months, and finished in 2004. All suitable open waters in the City were examined. Ireland has the densest otter population in Europe - a 1980 study by Chapman and Chapman showed over 90% of sites surveyed positive for otter presence - and they noted that otters were common in Irish cities.  The Irish population is consequently of international importance. Otters have been reported in Cork City since the 1960’s but no specific survey had been carried out.  In our survey, presence was reported from sightings and road casualties, and this was confirmed by the finding of spraints (otter faeces), holts (otter dens), footprints, trails, slides and rest sites. 



Otter tracks in Co. Waterford.
Photo: M. Stratham


The otters of Cork City - European Capital of Culture


Paddy Sleeman

Department of Zoology, Ecology and Plant Science, University College, Cork, Ireland


& Peter Moore

Department of Biology, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England



Otter droppings (spraints) on a pavement in Cork City.  Photo: P. Sleeman.

Cork City centre is focused on an island, and this is, despite being entirely urban, used by otters and marked by them. It has been suggested that otters are disturbed by human activity, however our finding that they are still present throughout the City contradicts this.  Holts were found at four sites throughout the City, all of which were near wooded areas. Their presence may indicate breeding. 


We looked at the threats to urban otters; these range from toxins, deaths caused by road traffic accidents, effect of the 1997 Cork Harbour oil spill and the changes in sewage disposal in Cork. This suggests that it is very risky being a City otter - many die, probably too many to be a self sustaining population, so Cork’s otter population is probably what is called a ‘sink’ which needs to be topped up by otters from the surrounding coasts, and perhaps up river. However as the River Lee gets cleaned up and the modern concerns about the environment move up the agenda perhaps Cork otters have a self sustaining future. Conservationists, like those in CNT, need to be flexible and be prepared to deal with animals that occur in urban habitats. Given Ireland’s rapid urbanisation and the fungus like growth of housing almost everywhere - in Cork, even Fota is being built on - we need to face a bleak future where some of our animals, at least, will live in urban habitats.


Otters in Cork City will be read as a paper at the 2005 Easter Meeting of The Mammal Society at Southampton -