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Wild Encounters #6: Halichoerus grypus

9th January 2018

Unlike on my other Wild Encounter experiences this year, there was no problem spotting my final subject.  They were spread out along the beach in their thousands, their haunting calls carrying over the dunes before I could even see them.  Although normally at home out at sea, in November and December huge numbers of grey seal come to the mainland to give birth and breed.  It’s a spectacular sight which can be witnessed at a handful of sites along the east coast.

At the recommendation of a friend, I came to Donner Nook in Lincolnshire to see the colony that return there every winter.  I had not expected to be amongst so many people – it was hardly the quiet wildlife watching experience of my other Wild Encounters.  However the seals did not seem too troubled by our presence.  They lay slumped on the grassy sands, like fat lazy sun worshipers on a beach holiday.  In water, seals look sleek and move gracefully, but on land, moving about looks extremely arduous.  They waddle across the sand, flapping fins and grunting, but mainly lie there like beached whales. The moan of the hungry pup calling for its mum sounds almost human, or sometimes the prone mums would stroke their pups, presumably to wake them for feeding time.

 

Over the season the seal event can attract many thousands of visitors.  Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust have put up a safety barrier to protect the seals from disturbance from people,  and especially dogs who can spread a deadly virus to the seals.  One of the many Wildlife Trust volunteers on hand explained that prior to the fence, the presence of humans amongst the seals had caused some mothers to abandon their pups, but since it was installed, this had become rare.

There were many lone seal pups dotted about and visitors were concerned for their welfare, but the volunteer explained it was normal rite of passage for the young seals.  For the duration of their time on land, the adult seals can get nothing to eat so the cow seals efficiently wean the pups within 2-3 weeks, mate again with the aggressive bulls seals hanging around the beach, then head back out to sea to feed, abandoning their pup to fend for itself on the shore.  The pups stay on land while it moults its soft white coat and develop their sleek adult coat.  After just a few weeks, hunger sends the pups out to sea to hunt for their own food.  The following year the cycle starts all over again, with many seals returning to the same beaches where they were born.  The Wildlife Trust maintain a weekly list of seal numbers at Donner Nook and signs are cautiously positive for the recovery of this threatened species.

My year of seeking Wildlife Encounters through this blog has come to an end and I will be blogging on a different subject in 2018.  It was much harder than I had thought to observe our native wildlife, not just because animals are rightfully wary of humans, but also because our wildlife is disappearing at an alarming rate.  The hedgehogs did not visit our garden this year and I did not see any fox cubs where I normally would in the spring.  These local absences seem to confirm the State of Nature report which states a whopping 56% of UK species are in decline.  But just as I was losing hope for nature around me, this week I was walking along an industrial riverside in my native Keighley when in a flash of striking blue, a kingfisher flew past.  Apparently thanks to tightened environmental rules and the tireless work of wildlife campaigners, they are returning to our rivers, even in the most unlikely places.  To keep nature in our lives, we need to keep it in our minds and hearts too.