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Surprised by a seal pup

Ben DolphinAs both a wildlife enthusiast and snap-happy photographer I confess I have an innate desire of wanting to get as close to wildlife as possible. Or more accurately, as close as wildlife will allow me to get.

I’m certainly not alone in wanting to do so either. How many of us have tried creeping up on a butterfly or have gone to a pond in search of tadpoles? How many of us have simply tried to edge closer to a hare, ptarmigan, golden plover or some either iconic species out on the hill, only to fail miserably as it scurries or flies away?

Getting close can require patience and time, but by doing so you can see the markings, physiology and behaviour of a creature in unrivalled detail. More than that, the encounter might turn into a genuinely uplifting and moving experience. For me it’s those personal interactions, those intimate moments that transform the natural world from being merely a beautiful backdrop to our daily routines, into something much more involving, extraordinary and precious.

One of those extraordinary, intimate and precious moments

One of those extraordinary, intimate and precious moments

But to what extent do we consider the impact our curiosity has? It’s something we should actively think about because there’s a balance to be struck between satisfying that curiosity and disturbing the wildlife that we’re so in awe of.

Consider nesting birds, for example. Inadvertently scaring the parents off the nest could result in their chicks going hungry or cold, being left unprotected when a predator comes knocking or, at worst, being abandoned completely. Golden eagles are especially prone to disturbance these days on account of the number of curious tourists who accidentally stumble upon (and then approach) nesting sites.

Bear in mind too that it could be plain illegal to disturb certain creatures. Damaging a bat roost in your roof, allowing your dog to enter a badger sett, destroying a bird nest while it is being built, or even uprooting wild plants without the permission of the landowner, could all be considered offences.

Legalities aside, you should also exercise restraint for safety reasons, as wildlife can be dangerous. You don’t want to be getting too close to red deer stags during the rut, you don’t want to come between an animal and its young, and you don’t want to surprise animals or corner them because some, if they feel threatened, will defend themselves in the only way they know how.

The reactions of animals differ greatly from one another of course. At a species level some are just naturally more skittish, but differences in character and behaviour can be discerned between individuals of the same species too, or between geographically distinct populations. A given species might be wary in one location but relatively tame in another.

The point I’m working towards here is that there are times when it feels okay to get closer, and times when it doesn’t. As your exposure to the myriad creatures of the natural world increases and your experience grows, you’re better able to judge for yourself what feels right and what doesn’t. But if you’re unsure, always err on the side of caution and keep your distance, especially when there are young involved.

Having said all that, with the best will in the world there are times when you unexpectedly find yourself in a close encounter with unsuspecting wildlife, when you’re not sure of the correct thing to do. I had such an encounter on Islay recently when I unexpectedly encountered a lone seal pup on a beach – something that had, surprisingly, never happened to me before.

Shortly before the pup encounter

Shortly before the pup encounter

My partner and I were walking along the beautiful dunes on Loch Gruinart’s east shore, up to Killinallan Point. It was a dull, murky day but it was also insanely still with not a breath of wind. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of the sea on the beach and the distant low honking of several thousand geese at Loch Gruinart.

At Killinallan Point the loch meets the sea, and the placid shoreline of sand and calm waters instantly turns more turbulent as the dunes swing east towards Gortantoid. Waves from the open sea crashed onto a huge, wild, unblemished sandy beach. There was nobody around, indeed we’d seen nobody all afternoon.

After lingering there for a while, enjoying the splendid isolation of Islay’s north coast, we turned about and headed back the way we’d come. But we then noticed a curious track in the sand, one I’d never seen before. It took the form of a central trench leading out of the water and up towards the dunes, flanked by small, regular depressions on either side. Something had hauled itself out of the sea. A seal, surely, although it looked rather small.

Seal tracks

Seal tracks

The tracks petered out after a while and we thought no more of it. Then something caught our eye up by the wall of the dunes. My other half went to check it out, and it turned out to be a grey woolly jumper that someone had discarded, or maybe it had washed up on the beach. Moments later I heard:

“Oh, it’s not a jumper, it’s a dead seal!”

I started up the beach to come and take a look and then heard:

“Err….no, it’s a sleeping seal!”

I stopped in my tracks and looked more closely. True enough, it was a tiny seal pup dozing under the enormous dunes.

By the time we realised what it was we were already upon it. Despite having seen tracks beforehand the seal was so small and camouflaged that it had gone unnoticed.

I was anxious about being so close so we edged away slowly. As we did so the pup looked up, cast a disinterested 2-second glance in our direction and then settled back down again. We stopped a few metres away, keeping our distance for fear of disturbing it more than we had already done, but also unable to leave simply because the encounter was something neither of us had experienced before and we were glued to the spot.

Had the pup shown signs of distress or alarm then we would have beat a hasty retreat. But instead it again just glanced, stretched, scratched its nose, rolled about, and seemed completely unfazed by us being there. My anxiety settled a little.

I’d seen pups before but only across an expanse of water, and then from a beach or a boat. To be standing within metres of one was surreal but it still didn’t feel quite right. It just looked so small and helpless set against the vast expanse of sand, dunes and surf, and I wrestled with a range of conflicting and contradictory voices in my head.

The childlike wildlife enthusiast in me wanted to get closer and stroke it; the countryside ranger was concerned for its welfare and worried about getting too close; the armchair animal welfare activist wanted to phone someone to come and rescue it; and the pragmatic naturalist wanted to leave it there for nature to run its course. So many voices. Which one should I listen to?

“Okay” I thought. “Let’s think this through rationally. What do I know about seal pups?”

I rushed through my scant knowledge to try and evaluate the pup’s situation.

It was tiny, barely 3ft long, so it was definitely born this year. It had been easy to mistake for a discarded item of clothing as it was coated in the most beautiful mottled fur – short and grey with black blotches, but with a few longer patches of white here and there. It had clearly shed a longer white coat, which meant it was a grey seal…..though I know that sounds like a contradiction.

Alone on the beach, and so small!

Alone on the beach, and so small!

We have two species of seal in the UK – common (or harbour) and grey. Common seals pup in the summer but their young are born with their adult coats, and can swim pretty much immediately. Grey seals, on the other hand, are born in a more helpless state with white birth coats. Not the best camouflage against a rocky grey background, but it’s an evolutionary trait that served them well when the climate was much colder and the pups were born straight onto snow and ice. That still happens from time to time today of course, for grey seal pups are born in the autumn and winter months, the exact timing of which is location specific around the UK coast.

I glanced around for evidence of other seals but there were none to be seen, and there was only one set of seal tracks on the beach – the pup’s, clearly emerging from the surf and heading up the shore. That suggested it was old enough to swim but there was no sign of a concerned parent. It was quite alone.

I reckoned there were three possibilities to explain this – it was remaining ashore while its mother was out at sea, it had been abandoned, or it was newly independent. That last option seemed wildly unlikely as the pup was so ridiculously small and it still had some of its birth fur. But what I had no idea of at the time was at what age they are left by their mothers to fend for themselves. In the absence of that knowledge and, based on the fact that the pup appeared to be in good condition, I reasoned it was PROBABLY okay, but I wasn’t certain by any means.

After ten minutes or so we headed back to the car with lingering doubts and understandable concerns. I did think about heading up to the RSPB buildings at Loch Gruinart to inform them but at that moment the pragmatic and fatalistic naturalist elbowed his way into my head:

“Ach, don’t worry. The natural world is both hardy and resilient. The pup is fine……and even if it isn’t, it’s just part of the plan and nature will run its course regardless.”

“Wow, that’s harsh” I replied.

“Nature isn’t harsh. It just…..is”

I still wasn’t convinced but the voice was insistent. Just short of the car park we encountered an Islay local, gathering winkles on the shore. On the off chance he knew about seal pups I asked him his opinion, but he was as clueless as I was.

I didn’t like not knowing, so when I got back to our cottage I did a bit of digging online about grey seal pups. Possible reasons I found for happening upon a lone pup on a beach were that it might have been washed away from its mother before weaning was complete, it might have been in the last stages of being weaned while its mother was feeding not far away or, indeed, it might be newly independent. Yep, to my amazement I discovered that grey seal pups are weaned by their mothers for a mere 21 days, after which they moult and are then left to fend for themselves! I found that incredible, and I felt much better about the encounter after that.

Our adorable grey seal pup, still moulting

Our adorable grey seal pup, still moulting

Arguably we should have been more observant beforehand but once we’d encountered the pup we’d been careful, respectful and responsible, and had used what little knowledge we possessed to assess the situation. We’d left the seal pup none the worse for our encounter, and left with a memory that was the undisputed highlight of the week.

We’d been undeniably fortunate, however, that this particular pup hadn’t been upset by us being there. As I say, different individuals react in different ways, and further reading online told how interfering with the pup could have alarmed it and driven it off to a new location, where its mother might not be able to find it. We might also have inadvertently driven it into the sea without it being ready for the challenge, while many sources suggested that the ‘smell of human’ might cause a mother to react negatively to the pup upon her return. And of course, had we acted on the desire to stroke it or transport it to another location, it could have given us a serious bite.

We’ll never know what happened to that seal pup of course, but through our encounter we learned a great deal about grey seals, and it has changed how we will behave the next time we encounter one. We will be certainly more vigilant the next time we’re strolling along a beach, but it’s also a precious encounter we will both remember for a very long time.

For the kinds of species you’re likely to encounter on the Scottish coast, SNH have produced a useful best practice guide for wildlife watching: http://www.marinecode.org/documents/Guide-web.pdf

Further info – Scotland’s Wildlife: The Law and You http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/wildlife/wildlifelaw.pdf

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.