There’s nothing quite like seeing large charismatic species close up in the wild and last Saturday I had the magical opportunity of seeing exactly that. I went on a trip with the Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust group I’m a member of to see grey seals and their adorable newly born pups.
Every year in November grey seal cows head inland, followed by the bulls, to give birth to their seal pups in a safe place away from the sea. Donna Nook nature reserve in Lincolnshire is one such haven for these seals and it is open to the public with only a thin fence to separate you from the seals and their pups.
Once we’d arrived and kitted ourselves up with all manner of waterproofs to battle the rain, we headed down the path from the car park. Barely a few metres in we stumbled across the stretch of salt marsh. It was dotted with what looked like large smooth grey rocks. On much closer inspection (which to my surprise was easy as they came right up to the fence) these were actually sleeping bull and cow seals.
The first seal pup sighting came quickly with a small crowd gathered around the fence fawning over their unbelievable cuteness. It had the essence of a zoo but it was anything but. These are truly wild animals that choose to have their offspring here, unfazed completely by the onlookers. Once that realisation sunk in for me it made the moment all the more special. It’s rare that wild animals will happily share their world with us, especially that moment of new born life. The seal pups truly were the star of the show, their white fluffy fur, big eyes and soft noses soon had me melting inside. The temptation to cuddle them was difficult to resist!
The seal pups looked up at us in curiosity whilst flapping their flippers and perpetual wriggling as if trying to find a comfortable position to lie in. I wondered if in reality this was them testing and preparing their muscles for the days when they would have to brave the north sea. It reminded me of similar behaviour I had seen in the osprey chicks I monitored over the summer who would sporadically stretch their wings and stand on two feet to strengthen their muscles in preparation for flight. Other pups were fast asleep or suckling from their mothers. Nearly all of them were new born, several days old with umbilical cords still attached. And to the horror of the more squeamish amongst us, placenta also littered the beach. Nature in all its disgusting glory.
The bulls were huge and quite brutish looking with dark dull coats. The cows were more beautiful with a variety of grey colours overlaid by speckled patches. One of the highlights of the day was seeing seals slipping along the muddy wet paths like a mud slide, altogether much more smooth and elegant than their usual lumbering movements on land. I’m sure they were enjoying it!
The Assistant Warden met with our group to explain more about the seals and the work of the nature reserve. Much of the reserve is MOD land resulting in an area left to naturally flourish free from humans. It features many rare habitats protected in EU law and is also a haven for birds. It has all the designations, SSSI, SAC and SPA. This lack of disturbance and the shelter provided by the dunes has led to the seals choosing this site to be their nursery. The mothers head inland to give birth to their pups and will then suckle them for around 18 days before leaving them to fend for themselves. In that time they will not eat and will lose around 40% of their body weight. I saw this with my own eyes, a clearly much older fatter pup than the newborns was suckling from a cow who was smaller and her body more defined with noticeable hips. The cows come into season as soon as they give birth which is why the bulls follow them there to beget next year’s batch of pups. We saw this too, bulls were pestering mothers who were quick to spurn their advances in evident attempts to protect their pups. There are around 200 seals at Donna Nook with numbers increasing year on year.
It was such a thrilling and inspirational experience to see the wild seals so close up in their natural habitat. I felt that spark of familiar unbridled joy that can only be felt when we come into contact with the wild that surrounds us. All too soon it was time for us to go and leave the seals to their sleep and the adorable pups to their contented wriggles. And all too soon for the pups, in a few weeks they will be off to face a whole new world.