PLANS to start building hundreds of new houses in Tarryholme could be scuppered or delayed after otters were discovered living on the land.

In January, planning bosses at North Ayrshire Council approved an application from Irvine Housing Association to build 87 new social housing homes in phase one, with a further 113 planned for phase two.

However the Times has discovered that neither NAC’s planning department or Irvine Housing bosses carried out an Otter Survey to determine whether building houses would disrupt the otters’ habitat – before the application was given the green light.

Under British law otters are a European Protected Species – which means it is a criminal offence to deliberately or recklessly disturb or ruin their habitat.

Irvine Housing Association insist that all the necessary surveys were carried out - and said there was no evidence of otters being in the Tarryholme area before the recent claims.

Planning chiefs also insist they carried out all the appropriate environmental checks before the application was passed, claiming the otters must have “moved in” afterwards and say there will be “no delays” with the development.

However these claims have been heavily disputed by environmental experts who say otters have long inhabited both the River Irvine and Annick River - which meet at the ponds in Tarryhome - right on the development site.

Stuart Brabbs, trust manager and chief biologist for Ayrshire Rivers Trust said: “Otters have always inhabited the River Irvine and the Annick River. They have not just been discovered or ‘moved in’.

“When we were carrying out research for our salmon migration work recently we were asked to carry out baseline surveys by various partners, who included SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage and North Ayrshire Council. So we did an ecological survey on bats, birds and other wildlife, including otters.

“For them to say they are not aware that there’s otters within those rivers is just not good enough. Whenever there is development near a water body a full assessment should have been done.

“North Ayrshire Council’s Local Biodiversity Action Plan work should have included otters.

“If they are saying that is news to them, then that is their deficiency.

“We are conservation experts. We work with all government agencies. We are not just interested in fish, but all species in the catchment and, to me, it seems short sighted of them if they have not done a baseline survey.”

Graeme Walker from Scottish Natural Heritage says NAC and Irvine Housing could find themselves breaking the law if they plough ahead with the development.

He said: “The otters’ protection trumps the planning permission. That’s the very reason these surveys should be done before planning permission is issued.

“It’s a big site at Tarryholme but if the builders disturb the otters while they are in their place of rest it’s a criminal offence.

“If they have someone like Stuart Brabbs, who knows the river, saying that there’s otters or a holt or resting place they have to avoid the works or the police will be called.”

Mr Walker also says otters have long inhabited the River Irvine. He said: “Otters are surprisingly common nowadays.

“It’s not uncommon for people to stand inside the Rivergate and watch the otters from the mall. They were found living in the foundations of the Rivergate Mall.”

In January the Times revealed NAC were forging ahead with Irvine Housing Association’s plans to build the homes, despite 49 lengthy objections from residents who say the infrastructure simply isn’t there to support that number of new properties.

Claude Nelson currently lives in Tarryholme and has taken pictures of the otters whilst out walking his dog.

He blasted North Ayrshire Council and Irvine Housing Association for making a “shambles” of the whole process.

He said: “We have long been objecting to this development on the grounds of safety for the current residents and any potential future residents. All of our concerns were just ignored.

“We were patronised and thanked for our input, but they weren’t one bit interested. They were determined this development was going ahead, but to now find out that it looks like they haven’t even covered the basics, well that is just a shambles. Someone has made a total mess of this.”

A North Ayrshire Council spokesperson said: “A phase 1 Habitat Survey was submitted with the Tarryholme application, which showed no evidence of protected species such as otters.

“The developer, Irvine Housing Association, has confirmed that should evidence come to light, the appropriate survey would be commissioned to pursue a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage. There are no current delays in the programme for the delivery of the development." 

Heather Anderson, Head of Services at Irvine Housing Association, said: “A full investigation was carried out on the site before we submitted a planning application, including an Ecology and Habitat survey, and there was no evidence of otters living there.

“If there are signs that otters have moved in to the drainage pond, then we will apply for Mitigation Licence and ensure that their habitat isn’t disturbed.

“Planning permission was granted to build 87 affordable homes and everything is going to schedule. The development is not on hold and preparations are in hand for the building work to begin in the summer.”