Friday, 16 February 2018

Visiting ‘our’ seals in Norfolk

By Dr Ben Garrod, Ambassador of Norfolk Wildlife Trust 

Grey seal, photo by Colin Eve
I have been lucky enough to have lived with wild chimpanzees in Uganda, followed walruses in Svalbard and surveyed humpback whales around Madagascar but there has always been a bit of an argument within the circles of biologists and conservations. The argument arises when many of us refer to ‘our’ animals when we work with them. Many say that they are wild and nobody should lay claim to them but I’d argue the opposite. By saying ‘my’ chimpanzees, I did see them as mine. And also belonging to Sippi, my senior field assistant; to Joy, the camp cook; to the researchers and tourists who visited and in fact, everyone everywhere. It’s my idea that by assuming a benign level of possession, we in fact increase a connection with the animals and from that, a sense of stewardship and ultimately, a vested care in what happens to an individual, community of species.

But it is not just those animals in frigid arctic waters or humid tropical forests that could benefit from a better relationship with humankind. Us Norfolkers are lucky enough to live in a part of the UK rich in terms of habitats and ecosystems, with a multitude of interesting and iconic species, many of which sit very close to the precipice of extinction. Something I always appreciated growing up in Norfolk is that close relationship with the surrounding environment we seem to inherently possess in our wild, wind stricken, coastal county. 

I remember the first time I saw a seal. I was on a beach on a walk in the tail end of winter. I delightedly watched as it splashed and dipped beneath the waters. Since that day some thirty years ago, I have watched this little stretch of coast around Horsey grow to become one of the largest and most important seal breeding colonies in the UK. I still visit every winter to see the pups being born and watch every spring as the big male grey seals tear chunks from each other as they battle for dominance. The thing I like most about it is that so many people who visit sites such as Horsey and Blakeney come away with a sense of real connection with the animals. So, I decided to ask a cross-section of people why they visit the seals in Norfolk and what they mean to them. 

Grey seal pup, photo by Peter Mallett
I started by asking broadcaster and presenter of BBC Look East, Susie Fowler-Watt why the seals are so special. “We are so lucky in Norfolk to have interesting wildlife all around us, but the seals at Horsey have to be an absolute favourite. We visit as a family, and the children love seeing the seal pups and learning about them. We often report on them on Look East, too - there was great excitement when the first grey seal twins were discovered there a couple of years ago.”

Many of the visitors do so either through curiosity or because it a lovely way to spend an afternoon but Natalie Bailey, the Producer from the Norwich Science Festival reminds us that a visit can be a great way to engage with science and the natural world. "Trips to see the seals have become increasingly popular and an annual tradition for many families. The visitor numbers at Norwich Science Festival this year demonstrates that there is an appetite to learn more about a whole range of science fields locally, and seal watching is another example of this. It raises awareness of the ecological issues surrounding our coastline and spurns conversation about this, which is fantastic."

Similarly, Dr David Waterhouse, the Senior Curator of Natural History for the Norfolk Museums Service marvels at just how special these iconic large animals are. “It's easy to forget that grey seals are our largest British mammal (big males can weigh up to 400kg, that's nearly 63 stone!). Because we lost most of our megafauna (such as mammoth and woolly rhino) after the last Ice Age, seal watching is the British equivalent of Big Game watching in Africa. In Norfolk, you can get incredibly close to these large but passive and intelligent animals. At Blakeney there are boat trips, but I've also had the privilege of swimming with seals at Waxham. They're so inquisitive and playful - you can keep swimming with dolphins, I'd rather swim with seals any day!” While swimming with seals is definitely not advisable for most of the year when either breeding or mating - David is an expert - but it does show just how inquisitive and intelligent these marine mammals are.

For most of us, the thought of an icy dip is not appealing and a visit to the sandy habitat of a breeding colony is more than enough. Julia Seggie is a committee member for the Friends of Horsey Seals, a group of dedicated and expert volunteer wardens who survey the breeding colony and ensure that the seals are not affected by the troops of eager visitors. As the number one winter attraction in Norfolk, Horsey attracted over 70,000 visitors last year and over 1,400 pups were born. It’s a unique experience to be able to see the seals in their natural habitat and for our wardens to be able to share this experience and educate members of the public about this special site is very rewarding. To witness the birth of a pup and share this with the public makes it that extra bit special.”

It is easy to see so many seals at a site like this and to think that everything is okay but like almost every marine species and habitat, seals are subject to the effects of changes in fish stocks and discarded household rubbish and fishing material. Brendan Joyce is the Chief Executive for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and shows us that it is not enough to just appreciate the seals around Norfolk but instead, they are deserving of our help. “I recall the time I was alone at Blakeney Point, just me and the seals. They were as curious about me as I was about them and I felt very much a guest in their wild world. These amazing and intelligent creatures seemed plentiful that day, but their existence is often precarious as they face many threats. We should be doing all we can to ensure their survival by protecting their fragile habitats.”

Grey seal at Horsey, photo by Norman Wyatt
With tens of thousands of visitors to breeding sites and through the success of TV series such as Blue Planet 2, which was the most watched wildlife series ever in the UK, it is clear that we are fascinated not only by the seals themselves but also nature in a broader context. We all marvel at the power of the large predatory seals and coo at the big-eyed pups but we need to give something back. Maybe the pledge to use less plastics around the home, or donating a few quid or telling our friends, family and kids just how important our local wildlife and their habitats are. 

Chief Officer for the Special Constabulary in Norfolk, Darren Taylor, who has visited the seals himself, reminds us that while we are incredibly lucky in having such an amazing wildlife spectacle on our doorsteps, we need to respect and treasure them. “It’s a real privilege to have hundreds of grey seals breeding in their natural environment on our Norfolk coast; however it is important to remember that they are wild animals and human presence can disturb them. We urge visitors to observe the good practice recommended by Friends of Horsey Seals who ensure the safety of both seals and visitors. They advise that members of the public keep a good distance away from the seals, including those in the dunes – they may look docile, but could bite. They also recommend that all dogs should be kept on a lead, that you stay within marked viewing fenced areas and respect other visitors and any direction given by the volunteers.”

It seems that most of us have been to a local seal breeding colony at some point and whether you're a scientist or a broadcaster, the magic felt at seeing the mischievous watery wildlife there is almost palpable. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles to see these wild places and it won’t cost you a fortune to visit but we still need to give these sites and the animals they house the respect they deserve.

  • Stay a good distance away from the seals
  • Look out for seals in the dunes and give them a wide berth
  • Be careful – seals have a nasty bite
  • Keep dogs on a lead
  • Keep to marked viewing areas and respect the fencing
  • Remember grey seals are wild animals and should not be approached
  • Respect other visitors