Did you know that there are beaches in England where you can get up close with over 1600 fluffy white seal pups? There are 4 thriving Grey Seal pupping colonies on England’s East Coast: Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, the Farne Islands off Northumberland and Blakeney and Horsey colonies in Norfolk. I visited Donna Nook in late November, just as pup numbers were reaching their peak.
Seals, seals, as far as the eye can see. Brownish-grey adults laying on the sand intermingled with the bright white fur of newborn pups. Some pups had even opted to snooze right up against the double fence that separates seals and visitors by only half a metre. Close enough to touch – not that you would, seals can give a nasty bite! Managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, Donna Nook is a National Nature Reserve and manned by helpful volunteer wardens who will happily answer your seal questions.
Grey Seals are the larger of the two seal species that live in the UK. You can tell Grey Seals apart from the smaller Common Seal (also known as the Harbour Seal) by their faces. Grey Seals have an elongated flat nose, a bit like a horse’s head, whilst Common Seals have a concave forehead and a shorter shout. Grey Seals’ nostrils are parallel, whilst Common Seals’ are V-Shaped.
The UK is home to 40% of the world’s population of Grey Seals and 90% of the European population. Grey Seals spend much of the year out at sea, feeding on fish – but will often come ashore to rest or digest their food, something we call “hauling out”. But Autumn brings one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles to our shores – Grey Seal pupping time! Starting in the South West in September and ending in midwinter with the large East Coast colonies, pregnant Grey Seal Cows (females) come ashore to give birth to 1 fluffy white pup.
It can get a bit crowded in the colonies, sometimes resulting in a bit of argy-bargy between Mums. There are Bull Seals (what we call male seals) lurking in amongst the Mums and pups too. This is because the females are ready to mate again around 16 days after giving birth. After mating, the fertilised egg doesn’t immediately implant – in something called delayed implantation, it implants and begins development up to 3 months later. This happens so that females from a given colony all give birth at a similar time.
The fluffy white pups stay close to Mum, suckling regularly on her rich 60% fat milk. The pups will call to Mum when they want a feed or attention – a wailing call that sounds disarmingly like a child calling “Muuuuuum”! Females reply with an ghost-like “woooooo” (especially scary when heard at night!). Mums check on their pups often, lifting their heads to see what the pups are up to or giving them a reassuring touch with their flippers. Experienced Mums are better at this – studies have shown that new Mums check on their pups less regularly. Motherhood is a learning process for us all!
Mums feed their pups for up to 21 days, during which time the pup triples in size and moults its fluffy white fur to reveal a grey, mottled coat similar to an adult seal. Once the pup is weaned, Mum heads out to sea, leaving her pup to fend for itself. With no one feeding them, pups are driven to the sea by hunger and will learn how to find food for themselves.
Life is tough in the sea for newly weaned pups, with many spotted on shore in the first year of their lives. If you spot a seal pup alone on a beach, there’s a few things to bear in mind. Seals will come ashore to rest or digest their food as part of their normal behaviour, so a seal on the beach is no reason for alarm. However, if it has a white coat it is very young and should be with Mum. Some Mums will leave their pups for a short time whilst they feed, so keep a watch from a distance and keep dogs away. If Mum doesn’t return, it may have been abandoned – Mums will abandon pups if they smell of humans or other animals – so keep dogs away and never touch a seal (they will bite!). If it has a grey coat, it is independent and may just be resting. However, if it looks excessively snotty around its eyes, nose and mouth, it could be sick and will need attention.
If you have concerns that the animal is abandoned or sick, call the team at British Divers Marine Life Rescue and they will send a qualified Marine Mammal Medic to help (details below). Never force a seal back into the sea – they are on the beach for a reason and this will do far more harm than good. White coated pups in particular are not yet ready to swim.
The great thing about visiting a breeding colony to see grey seals is that the sites are managed to cope with high visitor numbers – meaning disturbance to the seals is minimal and damage to fragile sand dunes is limited. Your visit can also have a positive impact on conservation; making a small donation can help protect these internationally important colonies and allow future visitors to enjoy the spectacle too.
If you’re heading to Donna Nook, it gets incredibly busy on a weekend (expect very long queues!), so try to go on a weekday. I did and it was a much nicer experience; at times I had my own little stretch of fence next to an inquisitive little seal pup that seemed as interested in me as I was in him. It doesn’t get much better than that.
If you find a lone seal in need of rescue, call British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) on 01825 765546 during office hours or 07787 433412 out of hours.