Over half the world’s Atlantic grey seals live in Britain, writes PETER FROST, so any fall in population here has wide-ranging implications globally
THE SEVERE tropical storms Ophelia and Brian earlier this year did much damage to our coastline.
More than two thirds of the 160 grey seal pups on Pembrokeshire’s Skomer Island were killed as the storms thundered up the Welsh coast — 90 more pups on Ramsey island also perished.
The various wildlife charities that own and manage the islands are now monitoring the impact on wildlife, repairing the damage and storm-proofing the islands for the future.
Skomer is an important breeding site for the Atlantic grey seal and island staff monitor the population throughout the year.
Lizzie Wilberforce, conservation manager for Skomer and Skokholm, told BBC Countryfile: “These storms were the strongest since 1987 and unfortunately, violent storms like these are becoming more common as our islands are exposed and vulnerable to severe weather.”
All around our coast severe storms and sea surge have caused all sorts of damage this year. Again storms have destroyed sea defences and coastal bungalows as well as flooding salt-marsh and agricultural land all around our coast.
Wildlife was hit hard, with many sea birds being storm tossed and disorientated and sea mammals including those grey seals on the Welsh coast were greatly affected.
The storms occurred at the start 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 Welsh coasts and much of England’s west coast too.
Hundreds 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 use this rich milk to put on five pounds (2kg) of weight per day until they have shed their distinctive white fur.
Fortunately the beaches and grey seal nurseries of the east coast have not been so badly hit. 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 and forecasts here are for another successful crop of fluffy white seal pups through until Christmas.
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 sand dunes which means you are not disturbing the family groups.
Further up the coast Blakeney Point will be home to about a thousand seals and pups. Other locations, such as Donna Hook in Lincolnshire, the biggest site for grey seals in Britain, are predicting bumper pupping events.
Grey seal mothers and pups have proved far more resourceful than expected in the case of past severe storms. Back in 2014 I wrote an article for these pages about what at first seemed to be catastrophic storm damage to our east coast grey seal populations.
In fact things turned out much better than 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 were displaced from their normal homes with the various colonies but urgent rescue efforts from a number of wildlife charities and seal sanctuaries as well as individuals rescued hundreds of 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 rookeries or haul-outs. 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 following few weeks the pup will moult its soft white birth coat growing a mottled waterproof replacement.
The pup doesn’t feed during the moult and relies on the fat it has built up from its 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 and no exceptional major storms only half the pups will survive.
With the present pressure on the seals, wildlife and seal charities are asking people to be disciplined when watching wild seals and the pupping sites and respect these sensitive creatures.
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.