By Calvin Jones
Ireland is considered to have the healthiest otter population in Europe. Surveys show that otters are present in more than ninety percent of our inland waterways and coastal waters. The species, already extinct over much of its former range, is listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and the thriving Irish otter population is of international importance in terms of otter conservation.
Despite being widespread, and in some areas locally common, the otter is an elusive and secretive animal that is rarely seen. Superb eyesight, an acute sense of smell and exceptional hearing usually give the otter plenty of warning when people are around and it tends to stay out of sight. Even people studying otter populations rely heavily on the readily recognisable signs of their activity and consider themselves lucky to catch a glimpse of their subjects.
Otters are between 55 and 130 centimetres (22 to 51 inches) long and typically weigh between 5 and 12 kilos (11 and 26 pounds), with dog otters slightly larger and heavier than the bitches. They are the only truly amphibious members of the weasel or mystelid family, and are superbly adapted to the aquatic life they lead.
Their long, sleek bodies; short, powerful legs; webbing between the toes and strong, rudder-like tails combine to give otters tremendous propulsion and exceptional manoeuvrability in the water. When diving otters close their ears and nostrils to keep water out, and their coat keeps them dry and warm in even the coldest conditions. The coat is chestnut brown in colour and slightly lighter on the belly.