A DNA-based assessment of otter connectivity in the Peak District

Otter swimming.

First footage of otters in the Peak District

In 2017, we filmed the first footage of otters in the Peak District (31st November 2017).

In 2018, we were very excited to film a mother otter and her young cub (27th March 2018; cub: 2-3 month old). This is the first evidence of otters breeding in the Peak District since otters were lost from the Peaks in the 1970s. Otter are difficult to monitor because territories are often over 20 miles, with otters typically not staying more than one night n any place.

Our work has sparked a lot of media interest and led to the project being featured on television, in print, online and on the radio.

Click on the links below to learn more about this project.


BBC Look North, Breakfast and Evening News, 31st May 2018

ITV Calendar News, Evening news, 11th September 2017

National and local newspapers:

Peak District National Park, Parklife Magazine 2018, Spring Issue, p10-11

i newspaper - Significant otter, 21st November 2017 (in print & online subscription)

Yorkshire Post - How otters came home to the Peak District, 14th November 2017 (in print & online)

Derbyshire Times - VIDEO: Amazing moment wild otter caught on camera in Peak District for first time, 9th November 2017


BBC News - Otter and cub filmed in the Peak District, 31st May 2018

BBC Autumn Watch - 7 nature things that happened this week, 9th November 2017

MSN News - Wild otter caught on camera in Peak District, 9th November 2017


BBC Radio Derby, Ian Skye Morning show, 8th June 2018 (at 1hr.16)

BBC Radio Sheffield, Toby Foster at Breakfast Show, 1st June 2018 (listen here)

BBC Radio 4, Today Program Nature Notes, 9th December 2017 (listen here)

BBC Radio Sheffield, Steve Bailey Morning Show, 27th December 2017 (listen here)

Sheffield University Forge Radio, December 2017

Aims of the DNA study

  1. Obtain genetic profiles of individual otters in the Peak District to estimate otter numbers.
  2. Compare the DNA profiles obtained to identify relatives. 
  3. Study otter passage through the Peak District and territory sizes.
  4. Investigate how season and landscape impacts on otter distribution.
  5. Identify any barriers to dispersal or risks crossing territories.


Identifying the drivers of otter movements and how these are linked to behaviour, seasonality or prey availability is vital to know how to study connectivity between populations, habitats and access to food.

Identifying genetic variability between individuals and so potential factors limiting connectivity will allow planners, land managers and landowners to avoid creating barriers in these areas with the aim of maintaining and improving connectivity between populations and maintaining genetic variability.

Surveying may also help to identify areas where it may be possible to reduce the risks to otters whilst travelling, such as otter deaths by road traffic.


a) Sample collection

We have surveyed the Peak District's Rivers including Derbyshire's river Derwent, Wye, Noe, Lathkill and Bradford and their tributaries and the Ladybower, Derwent and Howden Reservoirs.

We are currently surveying:

  • Reservoirs surrounding Sheffield: Rivelin Dams, Redmires, Strines, Dale Dike, Agden, Damflask, Broomhead and Moor Hall Reservoir
  • Sheffield's rivers: River Don and it's tributaries the Loxley, Rivelin, Porter and Sheaf
  • South Yorkshire's River Rother

b) A commercial kit was used to extract genomic DNA from the faecal samples.

c) The DNA obtained from each spraint sample was PCR amplified with an otter-specific genetic marker in order to identify if it was produced by an otter or not. (The invasive American mink, Neovison vison, is present in the Peak District and its scat is similar in appearance to that of the otter. Published DNA studies have revealed mink scat being mistaken as otter spraint. Dropping from other animals have also been mistaken for otter spraint including bird (eg corvid/ galliform) droppings and heron pellets.)

d) Two genetic sex markers are used to identify the sex of the otter producing each spraint.

e) We developed a new set of 7 microsatellite markers specifically designed to PCR amplify the low quality otter DNA, as is found in otter spraints.

f) These new markers are being used to genotype the samples in triplicate to obtain a consensus DNA profile for each sample.

g) The consensus microsatellite DNA profiles obtained for each sample will be compared to identify how many unique DNA profiles exist (and so how many different otters (of each sex) are present). 

Appeal for help

We are appealing for help to find otter spraint, particularly in the Peak District. If you know of locations where otters are present or spraint might be found please contact Dr Deborah Dawson (d.a.dawson@sheffield.ac.uk).

Otters are easily disturbed even by the most well-meaning of people and so all information will be kept in confidence and specific details not released to avoid any threat of disturbance to otters.

We are appealing for donations to support the study and monitoring of otters in the Peak District, if you wish to donate please visit our fundraising page.


Video: First footage of otter in the peak district

UK Wild Otter Trust

Peak District National Park

Derwent Valley, Derbyshire

Otter spraint Wikipedia article

International Otter Survival Fund

Josh Jaggard Wildlife Photography: Otters

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