Nature Watch: Enjoy our seal colonies, but don’t touch

The hooded seal pup is pictured enjoying her stay at the Natureland Seal Sanctuary in Skegness.
The hooded seal pup is pictured enjoying her stay at the Natureland Seal Sanctuary in Skegness.

I WOULDN’T be at all surprised if the doctors’ surgeries in towns like Hull and Grimsby over the past three months have been full of people with nasty finger injuries, writes John Large.

It is hard to resist those lustrous, innocent eyes inviting you to reach out in friendship.

But don’t be fooled! Seals are wild animals, whether pups or not, and a bite from those teeth is not a good way to start the new year.

Donna Nook is a wild stretch of sandy coast near North Somercotes. Unusually for the east coast, the colony there are grey seals, our largest wild mammal.

Some grow up to nine-and-a-half feet and weigh over 600lbs.

The other species, called the common seal, has colonies off the east coast of Orkney and Shetland, the Dornoch and Moray Firths and The Wash.

Our grey seals tend to gather at the breeding grounds about a month before giving birth.

The bulls patrol around the pregnant females and will fight each other if necessary to establish supremacy.

The breeding season for grey seals starts in September and extends through until December.

Each female normally produces a single pup.

For about three weeks the mother will feed her pup with milk on land.

By this time she will also have taught the pup to swim, and it will be really plump from a constant diet of milk. It will moult from the white, long-haired coat it was born with into its adult coat.

It is time to part. The young have the urge to strike out on their own, and they cover vast distances in only a matter of days.

The fjords of Norway are well within their range.

They feed on fish, diving effortlessly for half-an-hour or more.

When submerged and at rest their heart beat drops from 150 beats per minute to 10.

This year the pups and their mums have had two traumatic experiences to put up with, both of them potentially serious. In early December a surge of high water swept down the North Sea from the north, reviving fears of the 1953 floods, which cost so many lives.

It climaxed only inches short of disaster level and many pups were washed away from their mothers, some to be lost completely.

The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust is still colating the overall mortality rate among the pups, with the outer births coming off worst.

The other problem this year came from the irresponsible behaviour of visitors. Groups from Spain and Italy clambered over the fences in search of unique photo opportunities, and they were followed by more local visitors. At one stage over 300 people were causing serious trauma to the animals.

The Donna Nook colony has been growing steadily in recent years.

This may be due to the benign weather we have been experiencing recently in the breeding season.

It was so warm when we visited recently that the mothers were bothered by flies buzzing around their eyes.

The greatly improved purity of water to be found in the Humber is also a factor, attracting fish and therefore seals.

At a count made just before Christmas, 1,431 pups were born this year, about the same as last year’s total.

This is at the top of the birth scale.

About one per cent of the world population of grey seals now enters life at Donna Nook, which ranks it equal in size to the famous Farne Islands colony.