It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Ok well almost, but for me and many others who have a passion for nature, this is a season that warrants a special visit to Lincolnshire. It involves a spectacular boom but it isn’t quite the boom many would imagine or expect…The Boom I am introducing you to is an annual event between the end of October through to mid to late December, which is more spectacular in my opinion than any explosive on Bonfire night. It is pupping season and I am talking baby boom or you could say pure puppy love. Each year thousands of grey seals moor up onto this part of the Lincolnshire coastline which is part of RAF Donna Nook. Here the bulls will battle for breeding rights of the cows and the cows are giving birth to pups.
So here I am again up at the crack of dawn and heading 3.5 hours north of Hertfordshire to capture and experience this remarkable event of nature. It is forecasted to be a mild day with sunshine before the impending storm arwen hits and creates havoc. Arriving around 9am in Donna Nook, there is already signs of the incoming storm. Whilst the sun is shining, there are smatterings of small showers with a darkened skyline and a double rainbow in view. I pull up at the roadside to capture the beginnings of the day and there is a real bite in the air from the north east wind.
Pulling up at my destination a little further on and, there is what seems like the usual coastal sounds of gulls cackling. However, the sound is not just gulls cackling and contrary to common belief, the sounds you can hear are also the grey seals. The reserve is run by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and for a mere £5 parking with 20% going towards the trust, you’ll find that for a set up in the middle of a rather large field, it has a good amount of amenities to cater for the visitors wanting to experience nature close up and in its full glory. Following the sandy pathway up a small incline, you are met with your usual coastal view. It is vast, the tide is heading out and there is a noticeable amount of bodies littering the flats. You can just make out the passing ships on the horizon and windsocks flapping away. If you are unfamiliar with this area, you would be unaware you have just walked onto a Ministry of Defence bombing range.
I continue along the path which is lined with sage coloured shrubbery and orange winter berries as I come to the main path, immediately before me is a fence with another fence about a meter apart and a white fluffy sausage and big blackened eyes looking back at me. It is one of many seal pups littering this coastline, some only hours old to this one who is approximately 4 weeks old. I am as always armed with camera and iPhone ready to document my experience. There are signs asking visitors not to attempt to touch the seals and this is for very good reason, whilst they are absolutely adorable, they do bite and they are wild. It is already a privilege to be able to see such beautiful creatures and that should be enough whilst documenting your memories.
This is a vast space and the count as of my visit at the end of November 2021, was Bulls 520, cows 1,599 with pups at approximately 1,589 and rising. On hand are volunteer wardens from Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust supervising this site whilst keeping log of the numbers and answering visitors numerous questions. There is a real air of excitement at seeing this natural wonder and the path is lined with visitors with their cameras, mobiles and scopes. Herring gulls are busy scavenging placenta that litters the area from the many births. Egrets are landing hoping to catch straggling sea life in the pools hidden within the marshes and cows are fending off randy bulls hoping to breed whilst protecting their pups or waiting to give birth. Stopping along the path and admiring the variety of colours the grey seals come in and as you will see, grey seals are not strictly grey, they can be a whole array of colours from a brown to grey to mottled.
Grey seals are the UK’s largest land mammal and as covered in my previous blog on common seals these mammals are incredibly powerful and come with large claws and teeth. The pups are also equip with claws and teeth from birth and they can give a serious bite if they are provoked or feel threatened. During my visit I was able to capture the strength and damage these beautiful creatures can do to one another when courting as you will see in the next series of my photography. Like all wildlife, they should be treated with caution and respect. Whilst the images may be distressing due to the blood, this is nature and this is what the cows and bulls do when either protecting their pup or courting to mate.
I was able to capture some of this on video as I headed north along the viewing area. Despite the fence barrier the cows can still feel threatened by visitors presence and they will make this known for you to backoff. The next clip shows a very protective mama seal and her pup. You will note the sounds the mama seal will make to warn off and they do growl as well, as you will note from these clips. The latter of the two clips, you will hear the pup calling out to its mother as she fends of two bulls eager to mate with her. One thing to note is bulls produce strong odors during breeding season and require a very strong sexual drive in order to dominate a cow’s aggression in response to their advances, and this reinforces research into natural selection and the selective advantage of aggressive dominance in bulls. It also demonstrates the strength and determination of the mothers to protect their pups and how they select a suitable mate.
I got talking to a member of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and he kindly explained that there is an 17-21 day lactation period. After around 3-5 weeks the mother will abandon her pup and start mating again, the pups are left to fend for themselves. Females are pregnant for around 11 months and give birth to a single pup and they identify their pups by scent. I was able to document lactation and capture the noises pups make when suckling on their mothers teet. For many such an experience is rare to witness and to be able to bring this to you, is something that I feel very privileged to do. The pups coats are known as lanugo which they will begin to moult after approximately 2-4 weeks. The pups are born white and fluffy, weighing about 14 kg at birth, as I learned during this experience, the more yellow the pup, the younger it is. The mothers milk contains approximately 60% fat which enables the pups to grow quickly. The next series of images are not just purely to demonstrate this, but to easily melt the coldest of hearts. The first of the following images is a pup that was only hours old with its umbilical cord still attached, the second is approximately a day old.
Some other key facts about grey seals are; Historically in the UK seal were hunted for their meat, oil and fur. As the price of seal fur rose, so did the level of exploitation. By the early 1900s commercial hunting had reduced seal populations to almost extinction. They were the first mammals to be protected by modern legislation – the Grey Seals Protection Act, 1914. However, though protected under the now Conservation of Seals Act (1970), under this act they are protected during a closed season from 1st September to 31st December, seals who cause damage at fish nets can still be killed. The largest of male grey seals which are known as bulls, are usually around 10 years old when they compete for breeding rights within a group of females known as cows. Female grey seals may live up to 35 years, but males seldom survive beyond 25 years old. Whilst the biggest risk to seals remains to be humans, there is another are risk facing Seals. To date two major outbreaks of Phocine Distemper Virus (PDV) in recent years have resulted in the deaths of seals with two significant recordings, in 1988 where over 23,000 died in European waters and a further 30,000 died in 2002. The other threat to grey seals and this may come as a surprise to some, is Killer whales (Orcas), which are present around the UK coastline, but, most commonly in Northern and Western parts of the Scottish coast, particular the Shetlands. Grey seals are sometimes known as horseheads, this is more apparent with the males who present with a more horse like head as you will note from my photography. Another interesting fact is they are known as a bioindicator species, this is because they can be monitored for changes that may indicate issues within their ecosystem. This can be monitoredphysiologically, by their behaviour, and their biochemistry. Adult seals do have fur and they will moult this annually each spring. They have super sensitive whiskers or vibrissae which enables them to hunt effectively even in poor visibility. Their whiskers have nerves which relays information to their brain about velocity, and the physical environment. They can detect other creatures moving through the water, even while they, themselves are swimming through the waters. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive mammals and whilst they are generally shy, they will interact with divers who have entered their territory and can be playful. However, if they feel threatened as you will have seen from the above footage, they can become aggressive. Foodwise, they love cod and sand eels, this is a staple in their diet and they have been documented as opportunistic hunters. Grey seals may look clumsy and ungraceful on land with their caterpillar like belly crawls but on land they can outrun and overtake a human on short distances. In water they have been known to have spurts of speed at around 22 mph, rather their usual speed of around 6 mph, where they can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes, diving to depths of up to 70 metres when hunting. Grey seals are non-migratory and usually stay within a 31 mile radius of their territory, however there have been recordings of them travelling up to 468 miles away.
Following my day with the seals it was time to head home, having had my hands frozen into claws twice which warranted visits back to my car only to attempt opening everything cack handed in order to defrost and regain movement, the winds were now picking up with sleet coming in more rapidly, I was keen to sort through my images in the warmth and bring to you this write up on one of the UK’s most majestic creatures to call our shores home.My images in this piece are sure to inspire many to pay a visit to this wondrous place and hopefully support Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust or The Wildlife Trust in general to continue their hard work in conservation. If you would like to support the Trust or find out more information about their conservation efforts either here or around the UK or where to visit, you can find details in the following link: https://www.lincstrust.org.uk/support-us/donate.