Dear Readers, I always like to feature a success story and there was a very fine one in The Guardian today. The grey seal (whose Latin name Halichoerus grypus means ‘hook-nosed sea pig) was reduced to a population of about 500 individuals by the beginning of the 20th century – they were often hunted, and were seen as pests by local fishing communities. Today, the UK population has reached no less than 120,000, which represents 95% of the grey seals in Europe, and over 40% of the grey seals worldwide. The main reason for their rise seems to be the ending of persecution (they’ve been protected by law throughout Great Britain and Ireland), but there is also some thought that they might be benefitting from the fish that cluster around the artificial reefs created by wind turbines, in a nice display of the law of unintended consequences.
Grey seals are such big, curious animals, always popping up from below the waves to see what’s going on. They can live for up to 40 years, and often return to the same beaches to breed. The pups are born at various times around the UK coast, from August to January. They are fed with their mother’s rich milk for a few weeks, and then the females leave, to feed and to get ready for their next pup. By now, most of the pups will be thinking about braving the waves and going it alone for the first time. You can see grey seals at any time of year though – just take a boat to the Farne Islands, or Skomer, or walk along the beach at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire or the cliffs at Flamborough Head, and keep your eyes open for that retriever-shaped head. I have a great love for marine mammals of all kinds, but seeing a seal on a grey, blustery day is always a real tonic. The Wildlife Trusts have a list of places to see seals here.
The pups are very chunky creatures (as well they have to be – it’s cold in the North Sea and the Atlantic, and they need to be well upholstered). The pups are a bit prone to wandering once they’ve been left alone by their parents, and one was recently rescued from outside a kebab shop in Hemsby, Norfolk. As they can weigh up to 45 kg they can require quite a bit of muscle to move – they are usually loaded onto a stretcher and then two strong people carry them back down to the beach, which can be hundreds of metres away. One pup was found behind a closed gate in someone’s garden, which was a bit of a puzzle. Yet another one had swum up the river Ribble and ended up in a farmer’s field. Fortunately there’s something about these animals that people seem to love, and there are many people who act to rescue lost pups, and to act as volunteers when the pups are born, keeping onlookers at a safe distance and helping them to learn about the seals.
Incidentally, seals are quite closely related to dogs, and can catch diseases such as distemper, so please be very careful not to allow your hound to approach a seal, even if s/he is only being friendly.
Londoners don’t have to go quite so far from home to see seals though – grey and the smaller harbour seals are regularly spotted in the Thames, with the former being seen as far inland as Putney Bridge. Let’s hope that the deteriorating water quality of the past year (thanks for the sewage, water companies!) doesn’t affect them too much.
And, since it’s been a while, here’s a poem by Gillian Clarke. I love the image of the milk in the water, and the pup in his ‘cot of stone’. See what you think.
Seal by Gillian Clarke.
When the milk-arrow stabs, she comes, water-fluent, down the long green miles.
Her milk leaks into the sea –
blue blossoming in an opal.
The pup lies patient in his cot of stone.
They meet with cries, caress as people do.
She lies down for his suckling,
lifts him with a flipper from the sea’s reach
when the tide fills his throat with salt.
This is the fourteenth day.
In two days, no bitch-head will break the brilliance listening for baby-cries.
Down in the thunder of that other country, the bulls are calling
and her uterus is empty.
Alone and hungering in his fallen shawl,
He’ll nuzzle the Atlantic and be gone.
If that day’s still, his moult will lie a gleaming ring on the sand,
like the noose she slips on the sea.
lovely poem! I do feel a bit sad for the pup; such a short time with mama! Most mammals seem to nurse longer.
Yep, it always seems a shame, but they seem to be doing really well at the moment.
“When the milk-arrow stabs” is such a good line. I don’t fully understand “like the noose she slips on the sea” though. A great poem, I will look for more by Gillian Clarke
Yep, that puzzled me a bit too.
Yes, they’re quite common around the UK coast. We’ve seen them off both the Lleyn peninsular and near Harlech in Cardigan Bay. There’s a guy who runs seal trips from Plockton, on the west coast of Scotland, who guarantees seeing them or you’ll get your money back!! I’m sure they live permanently on an island in the bay!