Scientists to uncover secret life of otters

SCOTLAND’s otter population is to be the subject of an extensive scientific study for the first time in two decades amid concern over the lack of information surrounding the animals’ health and habitat.

Otters have not been comprehensively studied for 20 years in Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Otters have not been comprehensively studied for 20 years in Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Although the country is a European stronghold for the animal, the thousands of otters who make Scotland their home have not been the focus of ­significant analysis for a ­generation.

With research showing other British populations of the animals have a lower life expectancy than elsewhere in mainland Europe, it is hoped the new work will provide a “clearer understanding of the threats faced by otters”.

A leading conservationist group welcomed the move, stressing that no-one can afford to be “complacent” about the health of the mammals.

The study, to be conducted by the University of Cardiff, aims to provide scientists with an insight into the animals’ surroundings and the chemical pollutants which are hazardous to them.

The university’s Otter Project has been monitoring otters found dead in England and Wales since the early 1990s, and now thanks to funding from the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF), otters from Scotland will also be examined.

The most recent statistics compiled by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on the otter population are more than ten years old, and indicated there were about 8,000 of the animals in 2004, with the majority inhabiting the west coast and the ­islands.

Dr Elizabeth Chadwick, a project manager in the university’s school of biosciences and lead researcher with the Otter Project, said: “By expanding our research to Scotland, it now encompasses the whole range of the otter in mainland Britain, and will be able to ­develop a much clearer understanding of the threats faced by otters, and the challenge faced by all of us to maintain a healthy environment.”

Dr Paul Yoxon, IOSF head of operations, said: “We are delighted to be working with Cardiff University on this project. IOSF has been concerned for a long time that we have had no information on the health of Scottish otters.

“Cardiff University has already found out that otters in England and Wales are not living as long as in parts of mainland Europe, but we have no idea about the situation here. We can’t afford to be complacent about the health of our ­otters or the environment and we look forward to developing this work further.”

The Otter Project’s research has given an insight into many aspects of otters’ life and biology, including diet, population genetics, their use of scent to communicate, the spread of disease and their exposure to environmental pollution.

Otters found dead – often as roadkill, but sometimes due to disease or starvation – are ­reported by members of the public, and sent to researchers in Cardiff, who conduct a full post-mortem examination.

Otters, which are protected by European law, are often ­secretive in their behaviour, so direct observation in the wild is extremely challenging. By studying otters found dead, scientists can gather a wide range of information about them that would otherwise be unavailable.

According to SNH, the principal issue facing the population is roadkill, the single largest source of unnatural death among the animals. Commercial eel fishing and creeling for crustaceans has also been identified as a threat in some areas.

A spokeswoman for the government agency said that it too was planning new research to provide more up to date analysis of the mammals’ ­welfare.

She said: “The most recent survey information on otter numbers in Scotland is now ten years old. A new SNH study is due to be published in the next few months, which will provide an updated picture of how they have fared over the last decade.

“The 2004 work had shown that otters were thriving across Scotland and were re-colonising the remaining few areas in the south-east of the country, from where they had been absent for many years. This was linked to better water quality.”