The mass appeal of Norfolk's seal colonies
PUBLISHED: 16:10 10 December 2018 | UPDATED: 16:45 10 December 2018
Archant Norfolk © 2014
Every winter, a quiet, unassuming stretch of east Norfolk beach is transformed into a major visitor attraction drawing tens of thousands of people from all over the country
There are no bright lights, no café or gift shop. What there is though is the most magical of spectacles; nature and all its unpredictable wildness – and in this case cuteness - up close.
For those who have never taken a walk at Horsey beach in the winter months, the first glimpse of the ever-expanding seal colony is unforgettable. There are grey seals, and the occasional common seal interloper, as far as the eye can see.
At the start of the season, hundreds of pregnant females and giant bulls gather on the sand and swim by the shore. Intermittent play fighting and posturing breaks out among a group of adults lazing on the beach; tails and heads suddenly rise theatrically and in perfect synchronicity on the sand, as a big wave crashes round them. Then gradually, it is the tiny, vulnerable, fluffy pups which take centre stage.
In little more than a decade, Horsey has seen its grey seal rookery grow beyond all expectation – with the number of pups born on the quiet stretch of sand predicted to top 2,000 this year.
The Friends of Horsey Seals work tirelessly throughout the season to ensure the animals are given the best possible chance to flourish, while remaining at a safe enough distance to let nature take its course.
A team of around 140 volunteers monitors the colony and this year they have recruited even more people to try to keep up with both the growing number of seals and visitors.
“There were 250 seals born further down the beach at Winterton last year and all of a sudden we had no warden cover for them,” says Peter Ansell, chairman of The Friends of Horsey Seals. “They were hidden in the marram grass around the dunes so a lot of people were literally stumbling over them. There have always been one or two there, but never such large numbers. We did what we could to protect them and this year we are hoping, with the extra 18 wardens we have taken on, we should be able to provide more protection if it happens again.”
Peter says there is a strong correlation between the success of the colony and the presence of volunteers to monitor it.
“The higher mortality rates come in the areas where there are no wardens to protect them. Last year, we had a higher percentage of deaths at the Winterton end of the beach which was least protected. So the biggest and most important part of our job is to talk to the public and help them understand why we are asking them to keep in the designated areas and stay off the beach and not get too close to the seals.
“Some people think it is their right to walk on the beach, and they are right; we can’t close the beach. Usually, though, when we explain that if the mother is scared off and doesn’t come back, it is unlikely that pup will survive, they are incredibly supportive of what we are doing. We also have to explain to people with dogs off leads, or children getting way too close, that the threat isn’t just to the seals, but also to them; seals have very nasty bites and carry the threat of infection.”
He says for those living locally the explosion in visitor numbers, in particular over the Christmas holidays, has been challenging, with the small country roads heavily congested due to long queues for parking.
“It does ask a lot of local people and it can’t have been easy. Last year, we estimated around 65,000 to 80,000 visitors across the main season. Locals are suddenly asked not to access the beach which for the rest of the year they walk on, often daily. There are cars everywhere and the roads are extremely busy. Thankfully, a couple of years ago, a second car park opened and it has really helped with the queuing which is terrific. I think generally people are respectful of what we are doing here.”
Although you can see seals at Horsey all year round, the main season usually kicks off during the first weekend in November, when pups are starting to be born. It reaches a peak over Christmas and New Year, with
a trip to see the seals now cemented into many families’ festive calendar.
Visitors are increasingly coming from all over the country as well and the volunteers also welcomed a coach of school children from London last year, as well as other local educational projects.
Peter, a former transport manager, got involved after moving to Norfolk and volunteering, initially with the RSPB and then Natural England, which at that point was supporting the colony at Horsey.
“Some of us volunteers were asked if we would consider forming a friends group to take over running the project. That was 14 years ago. When I started there were less than 100 pups – last year there were 1,800. Friends of Horsey Seals is now a charity and we have a fantastic team.”
Volunteers come from far and wide and are required to commit a certain number of hours each season, but most go above and beyond what is needed. They are given basic training, learning about the seals and their behaviour, how to spot a sick or injured seal or pup and practical things, like using the walkie-talkies and familiarising themselves with the different areas of the beach. Support is always on hand from senior wardens who are also trained to safely rescue sick or injured seals from the beach – taking them to the RSPCA’s centre at East Winch, near King’s Lynn.
“You have to be really careful when you see an injured or sick seal,” says Peter. “If they are in a big group they can be easily spooked which can be dangerous and if they are too near the water’s edge they just dive in.
“But gradually they often separate from the group and move up the beach, as if they are going to die. That’s when we know we have a good chance of catching them, but of course by then it also means they are incredibly unwell so we have to move fast.”
The pups have a high mortality rate of around 40% as they are left after only three weeks by their mothers and then have to fend for themselves. In that first three weeks their weight goes from 15kg to 45kg – such is the importance of the rich, mother’s milk, it takes three months to put on the equivalent weight at a rescue centre.
In recent years, the team has also witnessed first hand the impact of plastics in the seas. Volunteers are seeing a growing number of seals tangled in plastic debris or with pieces wrapped around their flippers or necks, an issue highlighted last year by the rescue, and subsequent happy release, of Frisbee the seal, who was close to death after being found with a throwing toy embedded in her neck.
“This seal here has a large welt around its neck,” says Peter, pointing to a large animal in the group. “It is difficult to see until you get close whether something is embedded deeply into the neck or whether it is an old wound. This seal is tagged which means it has been rescued, had the plastic removed and then released back to the sea.
“But you can still see the deep scar which it left, a reminder to us all about the danger posed by plastics to our wildlife.”