PETER FROST finds that extreme weather has hit seal rookeries hard – but many of this year’s young have survived after all
The recent severe storms and sea surge that hit so much of Britain’s coast caused all sorts of damage. The storm destroyed sea defences and coastal bungalows as well as flooding salt-marsh and agricultural land.
Wildlife too was hit hard, with many sea birds being storm tossed and disorientated and sea mammals, particularly grey seals, greatly affected.
The storms occurred precisely at the height of the grey seal pupping season. The terrible weather could not have come at a worse time. Bodies of fluffy white dead seal pups have littered beaches all along the east coast.
Thousands of seals pups were caught up in the storms and separated from their mothers. This was very serious as the pups were not yet mature enough to survive alone.
The young pups can’t swim or survive without their mother’s milk which is 60 per cent fat and the consistency of condensed milk.
Pups put on five pounds (2kg) of weight per day until they have shed their distinctive white fur.
The beach at Horsey, close to the northern waters of the Norfolk Broads, has always been a favourite place of mine to watch these white fluffy pups.
Normally in the weeks running up to Christmas you can watch 400-500 baby seals feeding from their mothers on the beach. The best viewing is from the dunes which means you are not disturbing the family groups.
After the recent storm there were worries that more than half of Horsey’s pups had disappeared.
Along the coast at Blakeney Point, normally home to about a thousand seals and pups, again many seals seemed to have been swallowed by the storm. Other locations in Lincolnshire and even as far afield as the Isle of Man were reporting dead seal pups and abandoned and lost baby seals.
But in fact it seems the news might not be as bad as at first feared. Some of the grey seals, mothers and pups, were far more resourceful than experts had expected.
Large numbers of adult seals and pups were able to reach higher ground in among the sand dunes and escape the worst of the sea surge and resultant flooding.
Many of the seals will still have been displaced from their normal homes with the colony. A large number of wildlife charities and seal sanctuaries as well as individuals have reported and rescued distressed seals.
Around half of the world’s population of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) are found around the British coast. That Latin name translates as hook-nosed sea pig.
Adult grey seals are one of Britain’s largest wild mammals but are still vulnerable to disturbance by humans, dogs and bad weather during the pupping season.
Grey seals come ashore to breeding sites known as a rookery or haul-out.
The females, known as cows, arrive at the breeding sites before the bull seals and will usually give birth within a day or so of coming ashore.
They feed their pups on milk for three weeks, keeping the pup close in a well-defended territory. Over the next few weeks the pup will moult its soft white birth coat. It grows a mottled waterproof replacement.
The pup doesn’t feed during the moult and relies on the fat it has built up from mother’s milk. Eventually hunger drives it to the sea where it will learn to hunt and fish for itself.
Even in a good year with everything in its favour only half the pups will survive.
With the present pressure on the seals, wildlife and seal charities are asking people to keep away from wild seals and the pupping sites. Please put off your seal spotting expeditions until our seals have got over the trauma of the storms.
However, many of the seal sanctuaries are opening for public viewing of the rescued and orphaned unbelievably cute fluffy pups. Admission charges and collections will help them in their valuable work to ensure our wonderful seal populations survive.
Britain’s other less common, common seal.
The far less common but less shy so more often spotted common or harbour seal (phoca vitulina) pups later in the spring and hasn’t been so disturbed by the storms. Common seal populations are declining drastically for reasons that are still not fully understood.
This article was first published in the Morning Star on Friday 13 Dec 2013 – it replaced another article on seals written earlier but overtaken by the storms. That article is also available on this site.