Seal Life

Ev­ery year, part of the Lin­colnshire coast­line be­comes a hot­bed of an­i­mal ac­tiv­ity. Kate Chap­man and her fam­ily give it the seal of ap­proval

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Real Life -

There’s noth­ing like get­ting back to na­ture – but my fam­ily didn’t an­tic­i­pate just how close we would come to it when we vis­ited Donna Nook Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve dur­ing grey seal-pup­ping sea­son.

Ev­ery year, a 10km stretch of the East Lin­colnshire coast­line wit­nesses a mag­nif­i­cent spec­ta­cle – seals re­turn­ing to the beach from the end of Oc­to­ber to De­cem­ber to give birth.

The sight at­tracts thou­sands of vis­i­tors from across the UK and last win­ter my hus­band and I, and our two chil­dren were among the crowds who flocked to the foot of the sand dunes to se­cure a view of Mother Na­ture at her very best.

We’d seen plenty of pic­tures on­line, but sus­pected they had been taken with long lens cam­eras and didn’t for one mo­ment an­tic­i­pate get­ting any­where near the seals and their gor­geous new­borns.

In re­al­ity, we were stunned to find our­selves just yards away. All that sep­a­rated us was a waist-high wire fence which many of the seals came up to, while oth­ers rested against it, peer­ing through with their en­dear­ing puppy dog eyes.

It truly was an amaz­ing sight to be­hold and one which my chil­dren still reg­u­larly talk about and,

I’m sure, will never for­get.

For a rare few mo­ments my daugh­ter Nancy, then six, was ren­dered speech­less by the sheer won­der of so many seals bask­ing, play­ing and haul­ing them­selves across the sand in front of her.

When she fi­nally found her voice she couldn’t get over how close we came with­out them shy­ing away. Then, she kept telling any­one who would lis­ten how cute they were, while my son Peter, then four, was mes­merised by a cou­ple of gi­ant bulls who kept rear­ing up to fight each other across the flats.

Rachel Shaw, of the Lin­colnshire Wildlife Trust, the char­ity which man­ages the re­serve, ex­plained grey seals have been breed­ing on the Lin­colnshire coast since the 1970s. For much of the year they are out at sea or hauled out on the dis­tant sand­banks, but dur­ing the win­ter months come to breed on the beaches.

‘The Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion of grey seals – also known as At­lantic seals – is of great in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance, ac­count­ing for about 40% of the world pop­u­la­tion,’ she says.

‘A few seals started com­ing here in the 1970s, and at that time it was very quiet but as the num­ber of seals has in­creased, so has the num­ber of vis­i­tors. Now it gets ex­tremely busy, with as many as 5,000 peo­ple in a sin­gle day and we rec­om­mend peo­ple visit dur­ing the week if pos­si­ble.

‘The fact it is a RAF weapons range, and the beach is closed in the week, ac­tu­ally helps re­duce dis­tur­bance to the seals.

‘Ev­ery Novem­ber and De­cem­ber, they give birth to their pups near the sand dunes. The pups are born with white coats and suckle from their moth­ers for about two or three weeks. The mother then leaves the pups and will mate again be­fore leav­ing the beach.

‘The de­serted pup sheds its white coat. Af­ter a while, hunger

There can be more than 2,000 adults and 1,500 pups on the beach

drives it to make its way to the sea to look for its own food.’

Grey seals – which have a life­span of be­tween 30 and 40 years – can be dis­tin­guished from the com­mon seal by their larger size and longer head with a slop­ing Ro­man nose pro­file. They’re mainly grey in colour, with darker blotches and spots.

Grow­ing up to 3m in length, with adults weigh­ing be­tween 120kg and 300kg, they eat a diet of fish and are one of the few large an­i­mals that still sur­vive in Bri­tain.

In the past, these beau­ti­ful crea­tures have suf­fered from se­vere per­se­cu­tion, their num­bers dwin­dling as a re­sult, but, thank­fully, pop­u­la­tions have in­creased due to a ban on shooting and pro­tec­tion un­der the Con­ser­va­tion of Seals Act 1970. Sim­i­lar or­ders ex­ist in North­ern Ire­land and Scot­land, too.

Rachel says that, at present, the largest Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion can be found in the Bri­tish Isles, with other ma­jor sites in­clud­ing the re­mote Scot­tish High­lands with other colonies on the Farne Is­lands, in Northum­ber­land, and Blak­eney and Horsey, both in Nor­folk.

‘Seals are large preda­tors and are very pow­er­ful.

They can move sur­pris­ingly quickly and hav­ing teeth sim­i­lar to a dog, can in­flict a nasty bite, in­clud­ing the pups,’ she adds.

‘Moth­ers with pups can be very pro­tec­tive and big bulls can be ag­gres­sive. A mother seal may aban­don her pup if it smells of hu­mans or dogs.’

The first seal born last year at Donna Nook ar­rived on 24 Oc­to­ber, while over the course of pup­ping sea­son there were 1,957 new­borns in to­tal – an in­crease of 3% on the pre­vi­ous year.

Donna Nook is made up of dune, slacks and in­ter-ti­dal ar­eas and is bounded by a sea bank on the land­ward side, which was built af­ter the floods of 1953. As well as the seals, it is a haven for wildlife and birdlife.

The trust em­ploys a war­den to mon­i­tor its seal pop­u­la­tion and with the help of vol­un­teers pro­tects the seals from dis­tur­bance, the public against in­jury and pro­vides in­for­ma­tion.

It posts reg­u­lar on­line up­dates about seal births, as well as fig­ures for how many are vis­i­ble on the re­serve – at peak times there can be more than 2,000 adults and 1,500 pups on the beach.

One thing’s for sure – this spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral show cer­tainly got our whole fam­ily’s seal of ap­proval.

To find out more about the grey seals, the re­serve and for vis­i­tor guide­lines, visit linc­strust.org.uk/donna-nook

Seal-pup­ping sea­son draws thou­sands to the Donna Nook Na­ture Re­serve

kate's daugh­ter, Nancy, was en­thralled by the sight of the seals

The orkneys are a prime

seal-spot­ting site

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