Sunday, 22 November 2015

Donna Nook LWT

This post isn't a 'local patch' report, nor is it about birds or bugs, but instead a write-up on a day trip earlier this week to a very special location where I have wanted to visit since learning of its existence a couple of years ago - Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast. This Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust reserve is renowned for its large Grey (also known as Atlantic) Seal colony. The seals come ashore onto this large stretch of salt marsh to have their pups as well as to breed between late October and December with numbers peaking at around 3000 (including new pups) towards the end of November/early December. I had been keeping an eye on the 'weekly seal update' on the Trust's website so we could try to time our visit for when there were good numbers of seals, and preferably before the weather turned too cold and wintry!

I had seen others' photos taken at the reserve but yet still wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted us as we walked the short distance from the car park to the coastal path - seals as far as the eye could see, from just a few feet away and right out into the far distance. A few years ago waist-level fencing was installed to protect the seals from over-enthusiastic humans (and to a lesser extent vice-versa). It is critically important to the pups hat they are not touched by humans, trying to stroke them and thereby leaving them with a trace of human scent could cause them to be abandoned by their mothers with inevitable consequences for the pup. All of the photos below were taken using a zoom lens and from the correct side of the fence.

Seals, seals and more seals

Whilst we didn't witness any pups being born (the process of giving birth for these seals only taking a few minutes), there were a number of pups that were less than an hour old, perhaps born while we were there, their white fur still yellow and damp from amniotic fluid, with the lurid pink afterbirth close by. (Unlike some mammals the seals ignore the placenta and this and the detritus of birth is left behind for gulls or other scavengers.) The females will come on to the beach a few days before delivering their pups. They look after their young for the next 2 to 3 weeks during which time they do not feed themselves. After this point the females return to the sea and the pup has to fend for itself. The youngsters remain on the beach for another week or two before hunger drives them to venture to the sea in search of food. Mortality increases with this newfound independence and as many as 40% may not make it to their first birthday.

The image below shows a new mum relaxing with her newly born infant, still slightly bloodied from the experience. 
New mum with her infant

A close-up of the pup above

Mum encouraging her youngster to feed
One behaviour we noticed a few times was the females gently 'pawing' at their young - I was informed that this is done to encourage them to feed.  

Noticing the deep deep scarring on the neck of another of the females, I knew straight away that this must be 'Ropeneck'. As you can see in the photos below, she has very distinctive scarring from an old injury where fishing gear in which she had become entangled had cut very deeply into her skin. Fortunately this was noticed in time and removed by wardens. She has since made a full recovery - every year bar one since 2000 Ropeneck has visited the same stretch of sand to give birth and it was a privilege to see her and her 2 day old pup, as well as being a graphic reminder of the harm that discarded fishing gear and other rubbish that ends up in our seas and oceans can do to wildlife.

A tender moment between Ropeneck and her 2 day old pup

The tiny pups were in so many ways reminiscent of a human infant; the tiny cries and squeaks, the sneezes that were as much of a surprise to them as to the admiring and cooing [human] onlookers, the innocent happiness of just rolling around. Much as a baby might suck their fingers or toes, pups would chew on a flipper, and we looked on with amusement as one tiny infants' efforts to crawl were visibly punctuated by hiccups.

A tasty flipper to chew!
Females sorting out some personal space issues
Altercations were few and far between, at least while we were there, and they were over and done with quickly. The females were very protective of their young and any male, or other female for that matter, considered to be getting too close for comfort would be hissed at and threatened until sufficient personal space was regained and peace restored. 

Not welcome - a female (right) makes her feelings known to a male
One unfortunate male, who was neither the 'beachmaster' (i.e. the dominant male on a breeding beach) nor small youngster, seemed to have found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place...... Shuffle along the channel of water to the left, and a very large male would body slam the wet sand in what could only be interpreted as a show of strength and aggression, turn to the right and the females would hiss and posture their warnings should he even think about coming too close to their pups. In the end he decided on a third route which headed back towards the sea. 

Blissfully snoozing on his/her back
Young and old, what many of the seals seemed to be very content to do was to just relax... Considering their proximity to the people coming to see them, albeit separated by low wooden fencing, I found this quite remarkable. It did make me wonder about what effect the proximity of so many visitors had on the seals, but apparently the infant mortality here is considerably lower than at many other colonies at about 10%. It also tends to be the more confident and experienced mothers (such as Ropeneck mentioned above) who come closer in to the fencing. This also affords them (or rather their pups), greater protection from especially high tides, or tidal surges. Wardens help to ensure that seals come to no harm from over-enthusiastic visitors. Although I have seen seals previously (generally from a boat and a great distance away), this was a really special experience to see and hear these wild animals so closely and to witness them going about their daily business at this important time in their lives.  

Adult male relaxing

One of several information boards at the reserve


  1. That's a brilliant account of your trip Jan, I thoroughly don't expect to see any
    seals on my patch in the near future.

  2. ...although having said that,one did turn up in a field near here after a storm, thought to have swum along a ditch.

    1. Thanks very much Phil. Likewise, if I spotted a seal on my local patch it would be seriously off course!!! It was a bit of a trek to get to the reserve but well worth it. :)

  3. It is somewhere I have always wanted to visit looks amazing but I am always worried about the disturbance some of these amazing creatures have to suffer, so good to know many are not all that bothered (or appear so)

    1. Thanks Ashley, with the fencing set-up and several volunteers/wardens on hand I would hope that anything that could be detrimental to the seals is by and large prevented here. (There is a vast area available to the seals too which is out of the way of the fenced path.) But yes I share the same concerns regarding the potential for disturbance at any of these locations renowned for wildlife but which also attract a lot of visitors.

  4. Hi Jan, about your comment on my blog - I'm not sure where it went! I went to 'publish' but might have clicked on delete by mistake! - sorry! I pasted it back on the blog with 'from Jan'


    1. Hi Phil, no worries, I've managed to do plenty of weird things unintentionally with blog comments! Hope you've not been blown away with the recent storms, things were pretty wild here though we clearly got off lightly compared with many.

    2. Well according to my mum the storms have got a lot worse since they started naming them! We were OK here but it was really bad up in North Lancs and Cumbria.

  5. What a great privilege to be able to share some time with these amazing animals.
    Great write up and images as always Jan.

    1. Thanks so much Dougie, sorry for being so slow, I thought I'd replied :( Hope you're enjoying your break and I’ll look forward to your return! :)