We put aseal on the old year

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Day­light in­creases by the length of a gnat’s yawn on De­cem­ber 23, a week be­fore the cal­en­dar new year, as the sun sets out on its re­turn jour­ney back to­wards sum­mer. For the salmon and the red deer, the new year has al­ready be­gun: in our re­motest streams and glens breed­ing takes place, and a new cy­cle of life be­gins, in the au­tumn. For the grey seal – the At­lantic seal of my child­hood – the new year starts right now, with the birth of new pups fol­lowed al­most im­me­di­ately by mat­ing.

Once there were two types of seal around Bri­tain’s coasts – the com­mon and the At­lantic. Times and names change: the “com­mon” is now the least com­mon, of­ten re­ferred to as the har­bour seal; while the At­lantic seal has spread into the North Sea and is usu­ally re­ferred to as the “grey seal” – although its colour vari­a­tion is huge, from al­most white to black.

Three of the largest and most ac­ces­si­ble Bri­tish colonies of grey seal are now well away from the At­lantic: on the Farne Is­lands off the Northum­ber­land coast, at Donna Nook (Lin­colnshire) and at Blak­eney Point in north Nor­folk.

It was to Blak­eney that Lulu and I set out a cou­ple of weeks ago, on a day that felt as if it had been gouged from the ice of the Arc­tic. The achingly cold west wind brought sharp flur­ries of rain that stung our faces.

What a place – pure wilder­ness in over­crowded Bri­tain, and a trek of more than three miles along Blak­eney’s shin­gle spit, in­hos­pitable on such a day – thank good­ness for long johns and ther­mal gloves. Blak­eney is a na­tional na­ture re­serve – and to em­pha­sise the point we were over­taken by a small flock of snow bunt­ings. It ought to be a “flut­ter” of snow bunt­ings in an icy wind. What amaz­ing lit­tle birds, the most northerly breed­ing land birds on Earth. Where had this flut­ter come from for a warmer win­ter: Green­land, Ice­land or the Arc­tic tun­dra of Nor­way?

It is strange that while the “ex­perts” talk “cli­mate change” – as the High­lands of Scot­land “warm”, the num­ber of pairs of breed­ing Bri­tish snow bunt­ings de­fies logic and is in­creas­ing, when it should be de­creas­ing. Ex­perts!

Grad­u­ally, the land­scape and the seascape changed. Shin­gle gave way to sand – vast stretches of sand with an in­creas­ingly hos­tile sea on one side as the wind veered to the north, and dunes on the other. The sounds were a mix­ture: the wind through the mar­ram grass, a haunt­ing melodic wail – a sound of mists, wide hori­zons and far-off places be­yond our imag­i­na­tion; the rest­less sea be­yond; the song of the At­lantic seals, hun­dreds of them, many with pups. What a feel­ing: a tin­gling feel­ing, both men­tally and phys­i­cally. Here was an­tiq­uity, con­ti­nu­ity and na­ture as it has been since the world was young.

At the old lifeboat house, re­stored beau­ti­fully by the Na­tional Trust as a vis­i­tor cen­tre, were Gra­ham Lubbock and Paul Ni­chols. Once they were Na­tional Trust “war­dens”, but for no ob­vi­ous rea­son they have be­come “rangers”. Through­out the seal breed­ing sea­son, from Oc­to­ber to the be­gin­ning of Jan­uary, Paul lives at that re­mote cen­tre; he is the Lone Ranger.

As we tra­versed the board­walk through the dunes, in­quis­i­tive heads reared up from the tufts of mar­ram grass and clumps of “suaela” – shrubby sea blight – a plant most com­monly as­so­ci­ated with the Mediter­ranean, but also ob­vi­ously at home at Blak­eney Point. Many of the “cows” had pups with them. One pup’s white coat was smeared with blood: this was a very re­cent ar­rival.

Cau­tion and dis­tance are re­quired. Seals are large and can bite; the fe­males can be up to 6ft 6in long and weigh 420lbs, while the “bulls” dot­ted around the place can grow to a length of 11ft and weigh 680lbs.

One bull was too near a cow that was not yet in sea­son. She growled, sound­ing like our labrador. The male rolled over in sub­mis­sion – again, as­ton­ish­ingly, like our labrador. This year, the first pup in the colony was born on Oc­to­ber 30, and that has been fol­lowed by an­other 1,098, still with four more weeks to go. It is ex­pected that this year’s to­tal will eas­ily ex­ceed the 1,223 of last year. There is about a five per cent mor­tal­ity rate among the new­born pups, and a to­tal of 50 per cent are lost in the first year.

When Gra­ham first started work­ing for the Na­tional Trust in 1984 there were no breed­ing grey seals, just four lovelorn males. By 2000, fe­males had ap­peared, giv­ing birth to 25 pups, so the in­crease in pop­u­la­tion has been as­ton­ish­ing. Who said there was a fish short­age in the North Sea? The pups are born weigh­ing in at be­tween 26lb-33lb and are fed for be­tween three and four weeks, putting on up to 4.5lb a day from about six feeds a day at 10 min­utes per feed. In­cred­i­bly the cow’s milk is 60 per cent fat and con­tains no sugar, and all the while the mother is feed­ing her pup she is land-based and not feed­ing her­self. When the pups weigh about 99lb, their white baby coats be­come adult and coloured, and their mothers sim­ply leave them and head back to the sea.

When hunger fol­lows, the young seals head seaward and a sharp learn­ing curve be­gins.

From the top of the dunes the beach looked as­ton­ish­ing, with hun­dreds more seals and pups, some cov­ered with sea-blown sand, mak­ing them look like minia­ture sand dunes. Some males were en­gaged in mat­ing ma­noeu­vres, with one or two brawls briefly break­ing out. The wind had veered to the north and was blow­ing hard; spin­drift was blow­ing from the wave tops. What a sight. El­e­men­tal, mov­ing, beau­ti­ful and above all, wild.

It was time to re­turn – cold and dis­tance for­got­ten. A larger flut­ter of snow bunt­ings flew by, safely away from a mer­lin, Bri­tain’s smallest fal­con, which was fly­ing low into the wind, land­ing among mar­ram grass. Close by a curlew called and be­yond, fly­ing over salt marsh, was a marsh har­rier, a bird once de­scribed as “mi­gra­tory” but now of­ten re­main­ing here through­out the win­ter, and, far­ther away still, a ragged skein of brent geese.

Then re­al­ity re­turned. A speck­led hen – an Old Speck­led Hen beer can that is (even in this wild place, the de­tri­tus of civil­i­sa­tion) – and, out to sea, dozens of wind tur­bines. I won­der how many geese they kill each year? No­body tells us, and of course some con­ser­va­tion bod­ies do fi­nan­cially very well out of “green” elec­tric­ity and don’t tell us much about it at all.

Shortly af­ter my visit, a tidal surge re­sulted in the worst flood­ing along the north Nor­folk coast for 60 years. Sev­eral pups were sep­a­rated from their mothers, with 100 now be­ing cared for at the RSPCA’s wildlife res­cue cen­tre at East Winch, near Kings Lynn. There are now more than 1,200 pups still safely with their mothers along the dunes at Blak­eney Point, but the board­walk al­low­ing vis­i­tor ac­cess has been se­verely dam­aged. Con­sid­er­ing the strength of the surge, there were sur­pris­ingly few seal pup fa­tal­i­ties.

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