I propose to take Questions Nos. 567 and 569 together.
Ireland continues to remain a stronghold for the European otter. Four national surveys have been conducted to date. The first in 1980/81 found signs of otters throughout the country, at 88% of sites surveyed. There was some suggestion of declines in the survey results of 1990/91 and 2004/05 but the most recent survey (2010/11) indicated recovery to 1980 levels.
The most recent distribution data show that the otter continues to be widespread throughout Ireland in a wide variety of habitat types. Otters have two basic requirements: aquatic prey and safe refuges where they can rest. In Ireland, otter populations are found along rivers, lakes and coasts, where fish and other prey are abundant, and where the bank-side habitat offers plenty of cover.
A total of 44 Special Areas of Conservation have been designated with the otter as a qualifying interest. These comprise extensive stretches of river channels and coastline (including off-shore islands) as well as lakes and blanket bog systems. The main threats to the otter include pollution, particularly organic pollution resulting in fish kills, the removal of riparian vegetation, and accidental deaths (road traffic and fishing gear). The otter population (estimated at between 7,000 and 10,000 breeding females) is considered to be stable or increasing and none of the threats or pressures identified is considered to be impacting on the species at a population level. The overall status of otter is considered to be favourable.
The report from the last national otter survey can be downloaded here: https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/IWM76.pdf
In 2019, the National Parks & Wildlife Service of my Department, co-funded a survey across the island of Ireland on the distribution and status of the native Red Squirrel. The survey also examined the distribution of the native Pine Marten and the invasive Grey Squirrel. The Grey Squirrel was introduced to Ireland just over 100 years ago and competes with the Red Squirrel for resources. It also carries a disease that is fatal to the native species. As a result, the spread of Grey Squirrel in the second half of the 20th Century was mirrored by a retraction in Red Squirrel range and a reduction in numbers. In recent surveys, however, it became apparent that in some parts of Ireland there had been a change in the fortunes of the two species.
In surveys conducted in 2007 and 2012 it was evident that the Grey Squirrel had disappeared from parts of the midlands of Ireland. This disappearance was linked in subsequent studies to the re-emergence of the Pine Marten, a native Irish carnivore. The Pine Marten had previously almost disappeared but has made a considerable recovery after becoming protected under Irish and EU legislation. High densities of Pine Marten were found in the midlands of Ireland, in the areas where Grey Squirrel had disappeared. Meanwhile, Red Squirrel had made a recovery in some of these areas and seemed capable of co-habiting woodlands with the native carnivore.
The 2019 survey sought to update the distribution maps for the three species in recognition of the rapidly changing situation and I am pleased to say that the results are very encouraging. Red Squirrel sightings have increased considerably, particularly in Ulster and Leinster, and it has returned to many parts of the midlands from which it had disappeared. The most marked increases in Red Squirrel sightings were in Co. Westmeath, Co. Offaly and Co. Laois, the areas from which the Grey Squirrel has disappeared from longest. The midlands gap in Red Squirrel distribution recorded in previous surveys has retracted, however it is still rare in much of Co. Meath, Co. Louth and Co. Dublin. Meanwhile the grey squirrel has continued to decline and is absent now from large areas of the midlands. Full details of the survey results, including the up to date map of the red squirrel’s distribution, can be found in the online report here: https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/IWM121.pdf
Of further note is the recent revision of the All-Ireland Red Data List of Mammals. The 2009 version of the List had included Red Squirrel as “Near Threatened” due to concerns about its decline and the threat posed by the grey squirrel. The updated Red List from 2019 now lists red squirrel as “Least Concern” in recognition of its improved status.
The 2019 All-Ireland Red Data List of Mammals can be downloaded here: https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/Red%20List%20No.%2012%20Mammals.pdf