Grey Seals in Britain

Two surprising things about Grey Seals: their size – males can be up to 3 metres long, making them Britain’s largest land-breeding mammals – and their number – nearly half the world’s Grey Seal population live on British coasts.

A hundred years ago, there were fears about their survival, which led to the Grey Seal Protection Act of 1914, one of the first conservation laws of its kind.  With hunting prohibited in the breeding season, their numbers began to grow from an estimated 1,000 to the current 225,000.

Some more Grey seal facts:

  • They spend most of their lives at sea, though haul up onto rocks and beaches at low tide.  They also come onshore to breed in autumn, a good time for seal-watching.
  • The pups are born with dense white fur – a sign that the Grey seal evolved when the climate was colder and they could be camouflaged against the ice.
  • The pups suckle for three weeks, fattening rapidly on their mothers’ rich milk.  The breeding area is known as a rookery
  • After about a month, the pups moult and acquire a grey waterproof coat, for now they’re ready to enter the sea and forage for themselves.
  • As fish-eaters, there is controversy about the Grey seal’s impact on the fishing industry.  They compete with man for dwindling supplies of cod, but a large part of their diet is the sand eel, which is not caught for human consumption.  Grey seals will also eat octopus and crustaceans.

How to tell the difference between a male and female grey seal
The females  – cows – are generally smaller and paler, being 1.8 metres long on average.  The bulls have particularly prominent noses, as reflected by their Latin name Halichoerus grypus, meaning “hooked-nosed sea pig”.  The male will often have scars on its massive neck from fights with rivals during the mating season, although Grey seals are less aggressive than other seal species.

Where to see the Grey seal
There are many places to go Grey seal watching in Britain.  The major grey seal colonies are on the west Scottish coast.  They can also be found in the Farne Islands off Northumberland, Ramsey island off Pembrokeshire, Blakeney Point in Norfolk, Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, Seal Sands in Teeside and the north Cornish coastline.

An interesting alternative to just watching them is to swim with Grey seals in the Scilly Isles.

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