FAQs | Seals at South Walney

image of Grey seals at south walney -c- Stephen Westcott

Grey seals at South Walney nature reserve © Stephen Westcott

FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions about the Grey seals at South Walney Nature Reserve

If you have a question not shown on this page, feel free to get in touch by emailing us at mail@cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk or via our South Walney Twitter page #SouthWalney

1. When is the best time to see the seals? Where are the seals?

Grey seals can be spotted in the water around the nature reserve, usually at high tide. The best place to spot the seals in the water is from the path walking down towards Pier Hide, from Pier Hide itself at high tide, and from the seaward hides - Groyne Hide (although this hide is closed until further notice) and Sea Hide - and the seaward facing paths in between.

At low tide the seals haul out in large numbers on ‘the spit’ at the end of the nature reserve. However, there is strictly no access to the beaches on the nature reserve. 

The seal webcam installed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust now provides the perfect opportunity to watch these charismatic creatures up close as they haul out to rest and is also on-screen at the nature reserve.

As the times of high and low tides change on a daily basis, it is not possible to specify the best time to see the seals in the water or on the live seal cam. South Walney nature reserve is open daily 10am to 5pm (4pm in winter).

The nature reserve gate is closed and locked shortly after closing time. More information on the tide times can be found here. However during very high tides (9.86m and above) or when there are strong winds, the road to/from the reserve can be cut off for a period of time.

2. Why can’t I see any seals on the seal cam?

At low tide the seals haul out in large numbers on ‘the spit’ at the end of the nature reserve. However, they don’t always haul out in the same place so sometimes the camera may not be pointing directly at them.

At high tide, most of the seals are likely to be in the water as there is a limited amount of beach exposed. The seals will swim off to forage and to travel between areas. This could be close to the shore around the nature reserve, in which case you may see them swimming past the camera or it could be in the wider area or across the Irish Sea.

We will try to make sure that the seal cam is directed towards the area where the seals are as much as possible. However, seals like other wildlife are somewhat unpredictable in their distribution and occurrence. If you can’t see them on this occasion, please come back and visit the website regularly as the views of the seals are likely to change frequently throughout the day.

The seal cam is situated on the spit about a mile away from the internet mast at the South Walney Office and it is very exposed to the elements and the wildlife around it. The internet signal on the nature reserve can also be patchy. We apologise for any loss of signal and we will do our best to make sure it’s temporary when it does happen. Sometimes refreshing your web browser can help. However, please feel free to report problems to us by emailing us at mail@cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk. Thank you and enjoy!

3. Where do you get the seals from? Do they escape from the nature reserve?

Seals are wild animals and capable of swimming and moving on land when they need to. They are not constrained to the bounds of South Walney Nature Reserve. They simply choose to rest there most of the time as there is no public access and so limited disturbance.

4. I found a seal on the beach, how do I get it back to the nature reserve?

Healthy seals should be left well alone. Previously, we have had instances of well-meaning and concerned members of the public chasing young seals back in the sea to encourage them to come back to South Walney Nature Reserve. Another picked a seal pup up off the beach and drove it to the nature reserve in the boot of their car.

All of these behaviours disturb the seals and endanger people. Seals are wild animals and they are likely to bite when threatened. Not only can a seal bite be extremely nasty but they also harbour a range of pathogens which can transfer to humans and be harmful. Anyone who has been bitten by a seal should seek immediate medical attention. A seal bite letter, advising on the recommended treatment to be administered by a medical professional, can be downloaded from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue website.

We ask people to be responsible wildlife observers and use binoculars to watch seals and other wild animals without disturbing them.

5. There is a seal with something around its neck. What will you do?

Sadly, we are unable to remove netting or plastic from seals (especially when they are in large groups) because they are wild animals that are difficult and aggressive to approach and catch on land, and too fast to approach in water.

Trying to tranquilise them can be dangerous as it can take a while for the drugs to take effect by which time the animal may have fled to the water. If seals are anaesthetised and then enter the water, or when they are in the water, they can drown. Unfortunately the danger of being caught or ingesting litter can prove fatal for many species of animal.

Litter is a problem for much of our wildlife. Marine litter causes a problem for many species that mistake it for food or get trapped in it. Fishing and angling litter can have terrible consequences: floats and weights get caught in throats, hooks pierce skin and beaks and fishing nets and line frequently get wrapped around the limbs of all kinds of animals.

Around the UK, seal pups have been seen to swim head-first into clear plastic bags and be bashed around at high tide by plastic bottles, floating planks and oil drums or become entangled in fishing gear.

Older seals have been seen eating floating plastic bags, rubber gloves and crisp packets and getting their head and limbs stuck in plastic rings and nets. Rubbish often isn't left maliciously and most people are responsible but it only takes one careless person to cause a problem for wildlife. Please dispose of all litter carefully.

6. Do you have to cull them as there’s so many? Do they eat all the fish?

Grey seals are protected by law in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Conservation of Seals Act. It is illegal to recklessly disturb or injure grey seals in the UK. They are among the rarest seals in the world. The UK population represents about 40% of the world population and 95% of the EU population. In the past, grey seals have suffered from severe persecution and their numbers dwindled as a result. However, grey seal populations have started to increase again.

There can be the view amongst fishermen that seals are competitors for economically valuable fish and damage both fishing gear and catch. A report by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue compiled information on the interactions between seals and commercial fish stocks.

There are now realistic ‘multi-species’ models that look at the marine food web including other fish predators, including other fish and birds, seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales. Figures indicate that in the North Sea, commercial fisheries consume 36% of all fish, while all marine mammals together consume only 0.8% of the total.

Even if every grey seal in UK waters was removed, therefore, any possible ‘surplus’ of any kind of fish liberated to the industry would be extremely small and any discernible benefit would be short-lived with the current level of fishing. Seals near salmon-river estuaries have been found not to feed exclusively on salmon, and to consume much fewer salmon than those caught by anglers.

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