Snoop for poop on Lough Carra


OTTER WATCH People are being asked to help collect otter spraint around Lough Carra, in a bid to learn more about this shy native species and its local population.

Sometimes excrement is worth getting excited about

Ciara Moynihan

Who knew poop could be so interesting? This writer was recently inducted into a fascinating faecal fraternity, and she’s hooked. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. But before you push away your lunch, or question my sanity (and hygiene choices), the excrement to which I am referring is more correctly called ‘spraint’, and only one living thing produces it: our beloved otter.
At a Lough Carra Catchment Association Meeting held in Carnacon Community Centre earlier this month, we were treated to an engaging and enlightening talk on otter spraint and why it is worth knowing about. The speaker, Dutch PhD student Samirah Blaauw, is currently researching the otter population on and around Lough Carra – that beautiful marl lake so prized for its major ecological significance.
As well as being a Natura 2000 site, a Natural Heritage Area, a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation, Lough Carra also benefits from being part of the LIFE programme – the EU’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action.
The Lough Carra LIFE Project aims to improve water quality, restore the marl lake habitat, and raise the conservation status of other habitats and species within the catchment, including orchid-rich grasslands, limestone pavement, cladium fen, lesser horseshoe bats and, yes, otters.
“My project is specifically on the otter and mink,” Samirah explained. “In Ireland, the otter is a native species and is of conservation interest, whereas the American Mink was introduced by escaping from fur farms and is considered very invasive.” The former needs protecting, the latter requires management.
Samirah’s doctoral project involves the noninvasive monitoring of otters and mink at Lough Carra – and that’s where the poop comes in. Samirah can harvest DNA from samples of their faeces, which can reveal the number of otters (and mink) in the catchment area, their sex, whether they are related and the size of their different territories. By performing dietary analyses, she can also determine their prey species and determine the overlap between mink and otter diets.
“Noninvasive monitoring is basically a fancy way of saying we want to look at the otters without disturbing them,” Samirah explained. Otters are a very shy species, and trapping them to collect blood or tissue samples would obviously stress them out, so looking at their dung is a much kinder alternative.
And Samirah, who is based in SETU Waterford, wants to enlist the public’s help. Reporting otter sightings would be great – collecting the poop would be even better.

Get involved
Firstly, you’ll need to be able to tell the difference between an otter and a mink. “The Eurasian otter has a more rounded nose,” Samirah said, “and an otter tends to be a lighter brown in colouration with a little bit of white running along the throat. The tail tends to be thicker and the fur is also a lot shinier.”
The fur’s glossiness is one of its biological adaptations as a semi-aquatic species. Another is its webbed feet. Basically, these traits  help it to swim really well.
The mink is a lot smaller than the otter. It’s also thinner and a bit ‘fluffier’. Its tail is much bushier too. Its nose is more pointed, more triangular than an otter’s, and its fur is a lot darker – almost black.
If you think you might see some tracks, you’ll be able to tell they’re an otter’s if you can make out the webbing imprints (minks don’t have webbed toes). The otter’s foot pads also make larger, rounder tracks, whereas a mink’s sharp claw marks are more visible.
When it comes to poop hunting, you’ll need to be able to tell which beastie’s poo you’re looking at. (Brace yourselves, mental images incoming.)
Otter spraint tends to be green-grey-black in colour, long and ‘kind of cigar shaped’, and it has a distinct and not entirely unpleasant smell. Some say it smells like mown hay or jasmine tea. It also contains fish bones, crustacean shells, feathers and/or the fur of small land prey.
Mink poop can be similar in length and shape, and also contain feathers and fish bones. However, it’s darker and more uniform (less ‘chunky’) than otter spraint. It also has a horrible smell – ‘like burnt rubber and rotting meat’.
If you want to help Samirah and the Lough Carra otters by collecting some dung samples, where should you look? “The main thing to remember is that it’s usually about vantage points,” Samirah explained. “Otters like to mark their territory and signal where they have been by sprainting – so it’s all about visibility.”
The spraint is usually elevated, and in a spot that’s more likely to stay dry. Otters will poop on top of a rock or stone, on gravel beds, at tributary junctions or on ledges under bridges. “Even if it’s a narrow, plain stretch of sand, they’ll dig a little hole, make a little mountain of sand and poop on top of that, so they really do try to make it visible, which helps when you’re looking for it!”     
Now for the hands-on part. “Collecting it is not very complicated or difficult,” Samirah laughed. “Anyone who has a dog probably already knows how to do this. Basically, you just use a baggy – try not to touch the spraint with your bare hands. Turn the bag inside out [and cover your hand with it like a mitten], pick up the spraint, turn the bag back the right side out and tie it off. Then store it, preferably either frozen or somewhere cold, like a fridge.” Also, make a note of the location (you could use Google Maps to get the coordinates) and date.
The Lough Carra Life Project office in Belcarra has a dedicated fridge, and the nice people there are happy to store any samples that anyone collects over the next few months, for Samirah to collect. Happy hunting!

•      To find out more about the Lough Carra LIFE Project, visit, or call its project manager, Kieran Flynn, on 094 9064964. To find out more about Samirah Blaauw’s project and how you can help, email her at or call her on 083 1789993.