Waterford Estuary Otter Survey

I was recently awarded a grant from The Heritage Council to conduct an otter survey along the Waterford Estuary. HERITAGECOUNCILlogoThis project will study the distribution of otters in the Waterford Estuary combining citizen based observations and DNA research. This will increase our knowledge of how otters use the landscape. In addition, I am training and working with citizen scientists that live both locally and may be visiting over the summer months, the project will increase awareness of wildlife and natural heritage in the region.

Otters (c) Brian Power

Otters (c) Brian Power

The Waterford Estuary is a Natura 2000 site, which includes proposed Natural Heritage Areas (pNHAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The area is designated to conserve protected habitats and species including otters, listed as an ANNEX II and IV species on the EU Habitats Directive, and a number of fish species including lamprey, shad and salmon, listed as ANNEX II species. It is known that otters exist within the area, but more detailed information about their distribution, sex ratio and area of occupancy are currently unknown. Knowledge of protected fish species, especially rare species, is difficult to obtain as the fish must be directly observed. However, as otters tend to be general feeders, there is potential to use the otter spraints as an indirect monitoring tool to detect the presence of such species, forming what could potentially be a cost effective monitoring tool.

Our survey work as already gotten underway, and Lenka Jindrichova who lives in Tramore, Co. Waterford has volunteered to collected otter spraints, and to assist in the lab during the summer. Lenka is a mature student studying Pharmaceutical Science at Waterford Institute of Technology, and was keen to get work experience over the summer in a DNA lab. She is also a seasoned triathlete, and is even going to cycle to her survey sites. Now that’s what we call ‘sustainable otter surveying’!

DSC_0924 DSC_0927The sites that we are including in the survey include Dunmore East, Creadan Strand, Woodstown, Passage East, Cheekpoint and the King’s Channel. At Dunmore East, we surveyed the bridge where the stream enters the sea. Fresh water is important for otters fishing in the sea as they use it to wash the salt from their fur. We checked the ledges under the bridge and the rocks that stuck out of the water. We also surveyed the banks and rocks along the coast. For more information about otter surveying, check out my post about ‘How to look for otters‘.

We met  a group of German tourists while we were surveying. They were rather intrigued as to why we were clambering over rocks and poking under the bridge armed with clip boards and GPS units, so it was a lovely opportunity to explain to them what we were doing. Surveys like this offer great opportunities for engagement, and help increase awareness of the local wildlife populations.


The remnants of an old ship wreck at Creadan Strand


Piles of otter spraint. This estuarine otter has been feasting on crabs.


Otter footprints were evident on the river bank


Checking a ledge for otter spraints

Next, we headed off to Creadan Strand, a beautiful cove that is somewhat off the beaten track. As this area is less frequented by people, I was expecting it to be quite a good site. It represented a much more interesting area to survey, as there are lots of little caves, and grassy ledges that could make useful sprainting sites. As usual, the best place to look for signs of otter activity was where the fresh water entered the sea. Just at the far side of the culvert, we found a trampled grassy ledge that smelled strongly of ‘otter’. This distinctive smell is sometimes described as being similar to jasmine tea. I’m not sure I fully agree with such a comparison, but the smell is unique and is a great way to help you identify otters. We collected a number of fresh spraints here, and observed some fresh footprints. Otters have five toes, while dogs only have four, so this is a good way to distinguish the feet. Other mustelids (relatives of otters) also have five toes which include mink, pine marten, stoats and badgers.

mustelid footprints (2)

Following the success at Creadan Strand, we headed to Woodstown. We surveyed the bridge and the stream, and checked the rocks at the edge of the cove. We didn’t find any fresh spraints on this occasion, but I previously found evidence of otters here before, and we’ll be sure to regularly survey it over the summer.


Cheekpoint marsh with Faithlegg Wood in the background


Lenka collecting and recording otter spraints

Finally, we headed off to the marsh at Cheekpoint. This marsh is a wonderful wildlife amenity, and is a beautiful place for a walk at low tide. We surveyed the sea wall, and checked the mud for signs of otter footprints.

If anyone is interested in getting involved in the survey, or wishes to report observations and sightings to me, please get in touch using the form below or email me at domeara@wit.ie. I have also listed an event for Heritage Week in August, where I will lead a walk at the King’s Channel and show people how to spot the signs of otter activity. This event is free to attend, but booking is essential.


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