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