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  • Writer's pictureRachael Bentley

Grey seals weathering the storms in Norfolk

I visit the norfolk coast, in the aftermath of storm Desmond.

A storm and a seal pup

After storm Desmond hit the Norfolk coast in early December, there was a likelihood of young pups suffering, so I couldn’t visit Norfolk without seeing how they were doing a few weeks on.

The Friends of Horsey Seals confirmed that in 2015 they’d actually had a record number of pups born for the colony, totalling over 900 by the end of December, with 69 found dead. The majority of the colony was unaffected by the storms, and death tolls were no higher than normal. Which is great news.

"Pups less than three weeks old were at greatest risk… the weather being just one of them."

Starvation is the biggest killer, not the storms

Young seal pups are born with a thick white coat called lanugo, it keeps them warm on the beach but it isn’t waterproof and they don’t have the thick blubber to insulate them until they’re weaned. At this stage they’re ill equipped to survive rough seas, or becoming separated from their mothers.

The females come ashore to their Norfolk ‘rookeries’ between November and January, to have their young. The mother immediately bonds with her pup, learning its scent and cries. I saw seals ‘Eskimo kissing’, sniffing to check who’s who.

This bond is vital as the pup relies on her completely for food. She feeds the pup around six times a day for 2-3 weeks, hardly feeding herself; whilst the pup piles on the pounds, gaining 2kg a day. It’ll live off this fat when its mother abandons it abruptly after weaning, leaving it to fend for itself.

I’d presumed that pups can’t swim during these first few weeks, but I saw this mother taking her tiny pup for an early swimming lesson, perhaps making the most of the mild weather.

I imagine it’s a risk, too long in the water and they’ll get cold and use energy and vital fat reserves. It’s a fine line between learning to swim and fattening up. But one BBC report claimed that 60% of pups in Norway spent time swimming rather than suckling. These pups soon learnt to hunt and so regained the weight previously lost, catching up with the pups which had saved energy, fattening-up onshore.

The little pup kept disappearing underwater, I held my breath but they were in no rush to come back to shore. Mum was really attentive and made sure the pup didn’t venture far.

The pups shed their white coats at around three weeks old, getting a paler version of their adult coats. Yet, even with their new coats, most of the pups stay on the beach for the next couple of weeks (some for up to a month), lying around, dozing and surviving on their fat stores. Eventually, driven by instinct or hunger, all the pups will head for the sea, where they’ll need to learn to hunt, fast. Presumably those that have learnt to swim and copy mum already have a head start.

Big males pose a big threat

Shortly after giving birth, the cow is ready to breed again, and the big bulls are ready and waiting. That is when they’re not sleeping!

Male seals are the largest mammal in the UK. The big males are up to three meters long and weigh up to 300kg. Young pups can get crushed beneath charging bulls, they can also get split from their mothers in the fighting that ensues. This pup has scars that show it’s had a lucky escape.

The males bellow and fight to prove their dominance. They have folds of fat around their necks much like fighting dogs and many I saw had weeping wounds, from fights with well-matched males. The females fight each other too, if a cow gets too close to their baby. All this makes the beach a bit of a war zone for young pups.

"Watching them soon destroys any 'cute' preconceptions."

When the male and female do get together it appears like an abusive relationship. The girls give as good as they get, if they’re not ready. Seals are familiar and appealing, but they’re also wild animals, with one thing on their mind at this time of year.

I loved watching the grey seals so much, that I can see the Norfolk coast becoming a regular slot on my winter wildlife calendar.

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