The headwaters of the River Fergus flow through this area and form a maze of small and medium sized lakes connected by river channels.
The water is amazingly clear and on a calm, sunny day you can see right down to the bed of a lake and the shores are dotted with limestone boulders, large and small.
Wandering along the lake shores it soon became obvious that there was a large population of otters in the area. I didn’t see any of them, they tend to be shy and nocturnal, but I saw plenty of signs of their presence. In particular I found their distinctive droppings, or spraints, deposited on top of prominent boulders on the lake shore. Otters deposit their spraints, which are full of fish bones, to mark their territory, using the same sprainting stone, also called a ‘seat’, each time.
Female otters have smaller territories which often overlap those of the male, although the two sexes don’t mix outside the mating season. If you see a group of otters it’s invariably a mother with her cubs — they remain together as a family group for some time. The size of a male territory varies according to its ability to produce food. The upper Fergus and its lakes have high densities of fish due to the purity and richness of the water and fish form the bulk of an otter’s diet. This means that territories in the area are relatively small, perhaps only extending to three or four kilometres of lake shore.
I believe the shyness of otters and their reluctance to show themselves during daylight hours are acquired characteristics. They are naturally inquisitive animals, they are also top predators and, as such, relatively fearless, and they like sunshine. But for centuries they were persecuted. Their fur was once a valuable commodity and they were trapped and shot as vermin on the grounds that they ate fish which should be reserved for human consumption. They were also hunted for sport — in my youth there were several registered packs of otter hounds on various river catchments around the country.
Today attitudes are more enlightened and the otter has full legal protection. We have the healthiest and densest population of them across their whole Eurasian range. And, based on my own observations and anecdotal evidence, I believe our otters are beginning to respond to a safer environment by becoming less shy and less nocturnal. Recently I was shown pictures taken on a camera phone of a female otter and her litter of half-grown cubs playing in broad daylight on the Liffey inside the town boundaries of Newbridge. This is not an isolated incident and otters are increasingly being spotted in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and many other towns and cities.