The first grey seal pup to be born this breeding season has been spotted at South Walney Nature Reserve near Barrow. The pup was seen on Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s seal cam, which live streams footage of the seal colony all year round.
This is the fifth year running that pups have been born on the island. The highest number of pups born was in 2017 when 10 pups were recorded.
This seal colony is the only place that seals haul out in large numbers on to the beach in the North West and is a precious new colony that has grown rapidly over the last ten years.
Dr Emily Baxter, Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Senior Marine Conservation Officer says:
“We’re really excited to see our first seal pup of the season at South Walney Nature Reserve and we hope to have a few more pups appear over the next month or two. Sadly, we also spotted a still born pup, which is not uncommon in large seal colonies.
This seal colony is the only place that seals haul out in large numbers on to the beach in the North West and is a precious new colony that has grown rapidly over the last ten years. Staff, apprentices and our placement students are all involved in surveying the seals – it’s a real team effort. In February this year 483 seals were counted, the highest number yet.”
The success of the grey seal colony at South Walney Nature Reserve is not down to luck though, as Emily 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. However, more and more we are seeing disturbance coming from kayakers and other boats coming too close to seals resting on the beach. When seals are disturbed, they flee into the sea using up important energy stores. It is especially important that mums and pups are not disturbed while mums are still feeding.”
For those keen to see the pup, there is a close-up view on Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s SealCam which can be watched online at https://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife/cams/seal-cam 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. Find out high tide times here
During the 1970s and 80s, seals were seen only singly around Walney Island and gradually over time their numbers have increased with hundreds of individuals using the reserve 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. 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.
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.