Being on the river every day we are the lucky ones who get to see otters in the Boyne Valley. Besides being graceful and playful creatures, they are also ecological early warning signals for river systems. They are extremely sensitive and cannot cope with pollution. This makes them Mother Nature’s blue flags. Normally elusive, we managed to see them twice last week. We decided to compile as many interesting facts about the otter as we could, just in case you are lucky enough to see them too, or in case they appear in pub quizzes.
Otters are members of the weasel family, which means they are related to skunks and badgers, but not beavers.
Otters are found most everywhere in the world. The highest density of them in Europe is …(drum roll)…Ireland!
The Irish for otter is “madra uisce” which translates as “water dog”.
They have webbed feet which allows them to swim at 8mph. This would leave Michael Phelps splashing in the baby pool. They are quicker on land (18mph).
Otters are famously elusive. This could be because we spend all our time looking in the water for them when they spend most of their time on land at night.
Otters are revered in some cultures (Iran and Native American) as helpers. In Irish mythology they helped St Brendan on his voyage but they received no thanks for it. Their fur was thought to stop people from drowning and their skin was used for making bags to keep Irish harps dry. Irish tradition has it that otters never sleep. It was said that people who came from otter stock suffered from sleeplessness. Personally we believe this is a terrible slander on people of otter stock.
Otters are in the Boyne all year round thanks to their double layer of coats. One layer is waterproof and one is made up of fine hairs. The layers trap bubbles which give them their silky shine in the water. They have so much air trapped in there that their young cannot actually swim.
Otters have powerful tails which are a third of the length of their bodies. They use it to propel themselves through the water like mad things. Their eyes are designed for underwater vision and scientists suspect that they can actually smell underwater. The whiskers on their snouts are called vibrissae and they use them to detect prey underwater by sensing changes in water turbulence. It also makes them look cute.
Otters are hard to capture in words. Their droppings are called spraints. Males are called boars. Females are sows. Young are pups. They live in holts. A group of otters on land is called a bevy. If they are having fun they are called a romp. Unless they are playing on rocks and in that case they are called a hover. Or a couch. If they are in the water they are called a raft. Obviously.
Otter droppings have a peculiar smell, like jasmine tea. Don’t ask how we know this.