The first grey seal pup to be born this breeding season has been spotted at South Walney Nature Reserve near Barrow, prompting conservationists at Cumbria Wildlife Trust to ask: will the number of seal pups keep doubling year on year? This is the fourth year running that pups have been born on the island, with numbers doubling each year. Last year 10 pups were born at the nature reserve (with five in 2016 and two in 2015).
Sarah Dalrymple, Reserve Officer at South Walney Nature Reserve, says: “This is great news and we hope for yet another successful season here at South Walney – the breeding colony is well established now and it would be wonderful if numbers keep increasing year on year, but we’ll wait and see what the season brings. Our two Conservation Apprentices Jade and Melanie are helping us to survey the seals, and they’ve been keeping a look out for the pups for some weeks now. They’re counting the seals every fortnight, both the traditional way, using binoculars, as well as analysing aerial footage from our drone, so they’ll able update us as soon as they spot any more pups!”
The success of the grey seal colony at South Walney Nature Reserve is not down to luck though, as Sarah explains:
“Staff and volunteers at South Walney Nature Reserve have worked really hard to make sure the colony of grey seals is protected from disturbance from people and dogs, as the beaches are closed to the public. You may remember that someone drove a Landrover illegally on to the beach earlier this year. We need to reiterate to the public that thoughtless and unlawful disturbance such as this, even just from walking on the beach, can have a catastrophic effect on the breeding colony and we urge everyone to respect our ‘no entry’ rule at the beach at South Walney.”
For those keen to see the pup, there is a close-up view on Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s SealCam which can be watched online or on a screen at the nature reserve. Visitors can see the seals swimming and playing in the sea at high tide all around the reserve.
During the 1970s and 80s, seals were seen only singly around Walney Island and gradually over time their numbers have increased with a couple of hundred individuals now on and around the island at certain times of the year.
The mothers will stay with their pups for only a short time, feeding them with fat-rich milk, until it is weaned and then she will leave both the pup and the area. During this time, the pup will gradually moult its thick white fur revealing its adult coat with its own individual markings. After weaning, the pup may remain on the island for up to another few weeks or so before it is ready to head out to sea to forage for itself.
Grey seals have an annual, synchronous breeding cycle and females give birth in the autumn to a single pup at the same time each year. They usually return to their own place of birth to breed year on year in the same location. Towards the end of the weaning period the seals will mate again.
Seal surveys have been carried out since 2005, every two weeks between September and March. The survey aims to continually monitor the seal population structure in the area from year to year and this year Jade Allen and Melanie Shears are carrying out the survey with the help of volunteers. Jade and Melanie are working with Cumbria Wildlife Trust as part of Green Futures, a two-year apprenticeship scheme run by Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust.
The behaviours displayed by the seals at South Walney Nature Reserve are also monitored to gain understanding about the percentage of time that seals spend exhibiting different types of behaviour and how this is affected by human disturbance such as boating and recreational use of the sea surrounding Walney Island. The findings from the survey help to create management plans for the nature reserve.
Due to the young age of the seal, it is incredibly vulnerable to disturbance, which would cause the mother to abandon it and the pup to starve. For this reason, there is strictly no access to the area of the nature reserve where the seal pup is, and so it is not possible to view the pup at South Walney Nature Reserve. However, the rest of the seals can be seen playing and fishing in the water at high tide, along with thousands of wintering wildfowl and wader birds, from hides elsewhere on the nature reserve.