A group of Sheffield scientists have confirmed that as many as seven otters have been traced throughout Sheffield’s city centre.
The nocturnal animals have recently returned to areas of the Peak District for the first time in more than 50 years. Heavily polluted waters and fewer food sources saw numbers dwindle in the 1970s before otters became locally extinct as a result.
The study, by The University of Sheffield, said that both “urban and suburban areas” of the River Don have been visited by the otters, with at least two males in the pack.
Dr Deborah Dawson, project leader on the study, was clear that this was not a ‘reintroduction’ of otters, stressing that they have come back of their own accord.
“The rivers have improved so much, the factories aren’t pumping out all of the rubbish they used to”, she said.
Otters were also hunted in the area as recently as the 1980s, further contributing to their decline.
Efforts from local wildlife trusts to restore the rivers, coupled with new laws banning the persecution of the otters, have lead to their natural return to the Sheffield area.
Dr Dawson said that she has received several claims of public sightings, but because mink are more commonly found on Sheffield’s riverbanks, it was unlikely to be one of the otters.
“I’m sad to say that you’re unlikely to see one. In this area, they’re nocturnal.”
“They don’t come out until it’s pitch black, and they’re tucked up in bed by the time everyone’s up and going to work” she said.
Dr Dawson said that very little is known about the otter population in Britain, with there thought to be just 1600 wild otters in the United Kingdom.
The study aimed to find out exactly how many otters were living on the River Don, what they have been feeding on and whether inbreeding is occurring in the colony.
The otters are even thought to be helping to restore the local riverbanks, purely through their eating habits. A non-native crayfish species has been doing damage to the riverbanks, meaning other small mammals (such as water voles) have found it harder to make their homes.
The study comes to an end soon, but Dr Dawson is aiming to continue the research with further funding in the new year.
“Hopefully, if we can do something together with the other wildlife trusts, we can continue to help the otters and then hopefully, actually have a chance of seeing them.”