Many people would be astonished to hear that one of Britain’s most enigmatic animals is roaming up and down the River Don, yet it’s true! Quietly and stealthily, this most charismatic of mammals is finding a foothold right here in the heart of our urban patch, as our Otterly Amazing! project, part of our Nature Counts partnership project, discovered.
Otters were pushed to the brink of extinction in the 1950s century through pesticide poisoning, water pollution, persecution and habitat destruction. In Sheffield and Rotherham, much of the local steel industry and associated coal industry developed along the Don and Rother river corridors, and consequently, the two rivers suffered badly. Pollution and toxins, unsympathetic modifications made for the convenience of industry, and the dumped waste products made the rivers inhospitable to wildlife. It is hardly surprising that otters disappeared from the area.
Following improvements in water quality and strenuous efforts by countless agencies and volunteers to restore their habitat, there were encouraging signs that otters were making a comeback. Surveys ten years ago revealed evidence of otters, but their secretive nature
made them a challenging species to spot. Data on their presence has also been sparse since the 2007 floods, and we identified the need to learn more about the current otter population, and our Otterly Amazing project was born under the umbrella of Nature Counts.
Since its launch in May 2016, our project team and volunteers have conducted extensive ‘citizen science’ based surveys on the Don. Covering over 24km of the river over 18 months, over 22 volunteers attended our training, partly facilitated by the UK Wild Otter Trust, and helped to survey for signs of otter, including ‘spraints’ (droppings), footprints and feeding signs. We also teamed up with the University of Sheffield to provide spraints for its DNA study, which was led by Deborah Dawson from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences with the aim of revealing more about the number of otters using the Don, their sexes and their home ranges.
What we found – surveys
Our dedicated volunteers, assisted by our project team, helped to spot over 125 signs of otters that were verified by our team of experts. Over 100 spraints were also collected and passed to the team at the University of Sheffield to assist with their DNA study.
Out of the 91 1km2 survey squares covered, we were able to confirm the presence of otters in 23 of them, equating to 26.7%. Excitingly, many of these were found in very urban areas, and many sites yielded repeat signs, indicating that otters are using the river over several seasons. This may also suggest that otters are indeed resident on the Don and not just passing through on occasion.
We’d like to extend a huge thank you to the volunteers who undertook the surveys for us and who helped make this project possible.
Camera survey – Sheffield’s otters revealed!
We were very excited to report back in July 2016 that we had captured Sheffield’s first video footage of an otter! Although brief, this interesting shot from above confirmed their presence in the most captivating way. Since then we have captured otters on camera no less than 22 times from five different locations!
We presented our footage and results to a packed audience of nearly 400 people at Firth Hall in early September as part of a joint event with the University of Sheffield. Our footage is also featured in our Nature Counts exhibition at Weston Park Museum which is on display until March 2018.
There is much more to be done to better understand this species and to deliver further habitat improvements to help this rare mammal to thrive once again. We hope that our survey work will assist with further conservation efforts and also feed into our upcoming Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership Project.
Whilst we have finished our survey work, many of our cameras are still in action and we will continue to monitor otters in key urban areas. We also have further plans to monitor several artificial holts that were installed several years ago to see if they are being used by otters. Hopefully this will help to confirm whether otters are breeding in the area.
Otterly Amazing is part of Nature Counts, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. We’re very grateful to those who have donated additional funds to support the Otterly Amazing project, including the Garfield Weston Foundation, Yorkshire Water, the Banister Charitable Trust, Pakatak, The Don Network Trust, our members and everyone who has contributed to our appeal. We’d also like to again thank all of the volunteers who helped make the project possible, Dave Webb of the UK Wild Otter Trust for expert support through the project, Deborah Dawson and her team, and Thomas Jacks for loaning us additional wildlife cameras.