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Aqueduct attracts otters with a taste for the high life.

Byline: Sally Williams

RENOWNED as one of the most reticent and endangered of Britain's mammals, otters are usually associated with sleepy riverbanks and quiet earthen burrows.

But a new wildlife survey has found a Welsh population thriving along a brick and cast iron canal 125ft above the North Wales countryside.

And they are even being offered "upmarket homes" by conservationists to help boost their numbers.

After years of declining otter numbers, the British Waterways study shows that one of the animal's best strongholds in Wales is near the 1,000ft-long Pontcysyllte aqueduct, near Llangollen.

Stuart Moodie, a British Waterways ecologist, believes the otters are using the aqueducts and canals as food corridors to get to the River Dee.

"We are getting many reports from the public of otter spraints [faeces] being spotted under bridge arches which is a great sign," he said.

"Otters are at the top of their predatory chain and their presence is an excellent indicator for clear and clean water, good supplies of fish and a rich ecosystem.

"We already know the River Dee is good for these eco features and that the canals are great for otters because they roam along them seeking fish.

"But otters appear to be using the aqueduct as a food corridor too.

"In recent decades, otter populations suffered from the impact of organophosphates and pesticides.

"People just love otters because they are so beautiful, charismatic and a bit mysterious.

"They are very watchable but they only like secluded places, so it is rare to get a glimpse of them in the wild - although Wales is a stronghold."

Pontcysyllte and Llangollen Canal project officer, Piers Warburton, said British Waterways will be constructing otter homes - known as holts - in April to help boost their numbers even further.

"Otters act as natural guardians for the vulnerable water vole," he said.

"Carnivorous mink have an appetite for the small endangered native water animal, but are no match for larger native otters.

"The upmarket otter homes will be built at selected locations, encouraging this important native species to re-colonise the area.

"Identifying wildlife signatures is vitally important in building an accurate database of habitats and movements.

"Communities and visitors alike can play a key role in boosting the British Waterways Wildlife Survey by spotting and logging the wildlife they see."

He said local communities along the entire 11-mile World Heritage Site near the aqueduct are already being given the skills to identify signs of wildlife, which in turn can help British Waterways to conserve important habitats.

One animal being targeted by the survey this year is the stunning but elusive kingfisher, amid concerns that the harsh winter may have reduced its numbers.

A freezing winter in 1962-1963 saw the kingfisher population fall by between 80 and 90% and ecologist Mr Moodie fears this winter will have taken its toll too.

"Frozen water presents a feeding problem for the kingfisher," he said.

"Fish tend to lurk in deeper waters during cold spells and the kingfisher was unable to get through thick sheets of ice that covered Welsh rivers for up to two months.

"But now spring is here kingfishers are nesting and becoming more visible, so we are appealing to the public to let us know about any sightings," he added.

"Kingfishers are smaller and their colours are more beautiful than many people realise, so anyone fortunate enough to see one will think, 'what a lucky day'."

He said a good kingfisher-spotting site is at Vyrnwy Aqueduct on the Montgomery Canal near Welshpool.

British Waterways is raising money to improve habitats for birds found on the waterways, including providing nesting tunnels for kingfishers and preserving their perches.

The measures also include providing reedbed habitats alongside canals and in reservoirs for rare bitterns and reed buntings, and putting up nest boxes for grey wagtails and for barn owls.

Last year the wildlife survey recorded more than 42,500 wildlife sightings, including almost 300 different species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and mammals.

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THRIVING: The otter population is thriving in and around the Unesco World Heritage site at Pontcysyllte
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 20, 2010
Words:682
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