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The Seals of South Walney

Posted: Tuesday 10th December 2013 by Living Seas Team

Calf of Man Seal pupCalf of Man Seal pup- Anna Bunney

The seals that make South Walney Nature Reserve their home are a popular visitor attraction in Cumbria. They can be seen bobbing their heads out of the water and splashing around whilst fishing in Lighthouse Bay at high tide, something you can watch from Pier Hide.

The annual grey seal surveys on the reserve started in September, and once a month we venture down to the spit and crawl up to the shingle ridge to try and catch a glimpse of the seals when they are hauled out, without them noticing – a tricky task! When the seals are on the beach they are extremely relaxed, only lifting their heads a few times to observe their surroundings or to let out a huge yawn and a stretch! It looks to be a great life, lying on a beach all day soaking up the sun.

We can see that this population (totalling about 100 grey seals) is mainly made up of juvenile males and females who have yet to reach sexual maturity (which in males is 6 years, and in females 3 to 5 years). Unlike in mating populations, there is no aggression between the males or the females, even when they are lying so close to one another and any interaction they have with each other is playful. There’s also some large old bulls that are heavily scarred; these males must have been out competed by younger males on the breeding sites and visit the reserve to relax in their older years.

In comparison, I was lucky enough to venture over to the Calf of Man to help the Manx Wildlife Trust monitor the seal pup population on the island. The Calf of Man is a two kilometre wide island, situated off the most southerly point of the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Grey seals can be observed all year round, hauled out on rocky outcrops, but in late autumn the remote beaches and caves all around the island are dotted with small white fluffy Grey seal pups.

Photo identification is my favourite part of the survey, and I find it so incredibly interesting. Using this survey technique, we can see that Grey seals typically use the same locations to have their pups on a characteristic which is shown every year now on the Calf of Man. Grey seal number 002 in the catalogue, nicknamed ‘Heart’ because of a distinctive marking on her right cheek has had a pup on the same beach since the surveys began five years ago. Similarly, the impressive dominant male, M1 ‘Velvet’ has also been seen mating with females at the same site for the last five years. Each year there seems to be new mothers using these remote beaches, which demonstrates just how ideal these areas are for breeding.

                                                  Is he waving at me?! Calf of Man seal pup

The seal pups and adults are incredibly playful and intelligent, exhibiting such human-like characteristics like waving and nose scratching! Many of the pups love the water, swimming around for hours on end and even playing with the ropes that dangle down from the harbour walls. Other pups hurriedly haul themselves up the beach and away from the incoming tide when they feel the slightest bit of water touch their flippers. They have a unique personality just like we all do.

At the end of my 10 days, 37 pups had been born! 52 pups have now been born there, a new record!

By Anna Bunney


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