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Over the sea to sanctuary

On the eastern shores of the Isle of Skye, a much-needed conservation project is helping to protect an endangered species. Elaine Mitchell reports. Think of otters and we immediately remember Tarka, that lovable orphan who spawned two books and a television programme. If memory serves well, we may even recall a few heart-warming passages or a clip of footage, and rest easy with the story's happy ending.

Unfortunately, the light on the ring of bright water is losing its glow. The otter has become the forgotten casualty of environmental degradation. Of the 13 species worldwide, eight are endangered and the others vulnerable.

As with their famous cousin Tarka, so the future of these otters appears to rest in the hands of a couple who have devoted their lives to conservation. From a cottage in Broadford, on the eastern shores of Skye, Paul and Grace Yoxon have launched two charities which aim, through education, to conserve the island's environment and protect the otter worldwide.

The first, Skye Environmental Centre, was launched in 1988, and forms the pivot around which the couple's ambitions have spiralled. Funded by revenue generated from a programme of nature holidays which explore the Western Highlands and Islands, Russia and Switzerland, the centre acts as a base for island conservation and research.

From this base during the gloomy days of winter, the couple pieced together their knowledge of local habitats to write an environmental manual for schools. Highlands and Islands Exploration has now superseded standard environmental texts in the area.

Funded through the TSB Foundation and the Skye Environmental Centre, the manual was provided free to schools in the Highland region and at cost price to those in the Western Isles. Through exercises examining coastal, woodland, moorland and mountain ecosystems, the manual aims to promote awareness of the specificity of the local environment.

In the moorland section, pupils are asked to mark out an area and identify the various plants and animals within it. A card game, packed into the centre pages of the book which will be translated into Gaelic, involves matching footprints, droppings and food remains to individual animals.

"There is an abundance of environmental books on the market, but few of them are relevant to the Highlands," explains Grace Yoxon. "Many of them look at the plant and animal life which can be found on the edge of motorways and railway embankments, things that don't exist here. We wrote something which was relevant to children in the Highlands and the book is popular because of its relevance."

The Yoxons, both geology graduates from Keele University, often find themselves being used as a resource for schools. Called in to assist with projects, they have so far led discussions on volcanoes, bat, seal and shore-line conservation with the majority involving walks and practical field exercises.

"On the whole, the children are enthusiastic and far more aware of the problems than we were at their age," says Grace. "Not only do they know about the animals, but they know species face specific threats and become very impassioned about it."

This passion has boiled over into after-school activities, and the Yoxons now find competition fierce for their Wildlife Club. Places have been limited to 20 primary age children, and the waiting list is growing.

Club members, all regular visitors to the centre's wild-animal hospital which treats over 100 casualties each year, are keen to involve their classmates in conservation measures. Concerned by the waste from Broadford Primary's drinks dispenser, they are currently organising an aluminium recycling scheme which they hope to extend to neighbouring schools.

Like their mentors, interest in conservation has spread beyond the confines of the Highlands and the children have become enthusiastic supporters of the Yoxon's second charity. The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF), launched in November last year, aims to finance research and conservation programmes worldwide.

Existing entirely on membership, grants and donations, the IOSF hopes to increase awareness of the otter's importance in the aquatic food chain. Vulnerable to pollution and habitat destruction, the otter acts as an indicator to environmental degradation.

Within the first year of its launch, the IOSF attracted over 450 members. This support has funded a conservation programme for the rare South African Cape Clawless Otter, which is nearing extinction. IOSF grants and research information have aided an investigation into mercury pollution in the Amazon. Mercury is poisoning indigenous tribes and threatening the Giant Otter.

In conjunction with the Turkish Wildlife Organisation, the IOSF has funded an education programme in Bodrum, South East Turkey. Leaflets and information packs are being distributed to schools and followed up by talks from wildlife rangers.

During the summer, teams of volunteers are drafted in to take part in the most comprehensive survey of otters in Skye. Data, collected over a two-month period along the island's coastline, will indicate the status of the species on the island.

"Given adequate resources, we hope to increase our work with schools and, if possible, produce a slide pack on environmental issues for use with older children," says Grace. "Unfortunately, being a small organisation, everything becomes time-dependent."

Skye Environmental Centre, Broadford, Isle of Skye. Tel: 0471 822487

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