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Seal pup season gets underway at South Walney Nature Reserve

Monday 16th October 2017

Image of grey seal pup at South Walney Nature ReservePhoto: Sally Tapp

The first two grey seal pups to be born this breeding season have been spotted at South Walney Nature Reserve, on Walney Island.

Seals have used the protected beaches to haul out and rest at Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s South Walney Nature Reserve for decades, but this is only the third year that seal pups have been born on the island. Last year five pups were born at the nature reserve and staff at Cumbria Wildlife Trust hope numbers will increase this year.

Sarah Dalrymple, Reserve Officer at South Walney Nature reserve, says: 

“Our first seal pup appeared in the middle of October last year and so I’ve been checking SealCam every day in anticipation of our first birth this year. We’ve now seen two seal pups on the camera and I’m really hopeful our numbers will reach or exceed the five pups we had last year.”

“Staff and volunteers at South Walney Nature Reserve work 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, and the birth of these pups is a reflection of our success. The best view of the seals is via our SealCam which can be watched online on our website or on a screen at the nature reserve, people can also see the seals from the hide using binoculars.”

During the 1970s and 80s, seals were seen only singly around Walney Island and gradually over time their numbers have increased with over 100 individuals now on and around the island 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 and then she will leave both the pup and the area. 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 for six years, every two weeks between September and March. The survey aims to continually monitor the seal population structure in the area from year to year and this year Isaac Johnston and Sian Bentley have carried out the survey with the help of volunteers. Isaac and Sian are working with Cumbria Wildlife Trust as part of Green Futures, a two-year apprenticeship scheme run by Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust.

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.

You can also now watch the seals at South Walney Nature Reserve from the comfort of your office or home by logging on to the Trust’s popular new seal cam:
www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife/seal-cam