Island diary: Storm ordeals for grey seals

  • 30-40kg

    weight of a seal pup
  • 120

    pups on study beaches
  • 90

    pups lost in winter storm

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Tough times in rough seas

While storms are expected every autumn, Ophelia and Brian had a devastating effect on Ramsey Island’s seal pups, writes Lisa Morgan.

Every autumn, the grey seals arrive at RSPB Ramsey Island, which means it’s pupping season. The Pembrokeshire coast has the largest population of breeding Atlantic grey seals in the Irish Sea and south-western Great Britain. 

While there are storms every year, last October, during the peak of the pupping season, Storm Ophelia arrived, bringing with it exceptionally big waves and swells. We always follow the coastguard weather forecast and we knew what was coming, but there was nothing we could do. There were hundreds of seal pups on the beaches, already weighing between 30–40 kilos each, but still dependant on their mothers. We had no option but to watch and wait.

What did Ophelia and Brian bring?

The day before Storm Ophelia, we had 120 pups on our study beaches. The day after, just 31 were left. Some 90 pups were washed out to sea or battered on the rocks. Then Storm Brian came in and we lost half of the remaining pups. Some lost pups wash up on mainland beaches. Without their mothers, they need to be rescued and taken to seal sanctuaries for rehabilitation. 

We do lots of monitoring of seal pups to provide long-term data on the population and focus on limiting disturbance to females with pups or seals who have come ashore to moult. We work with everyone from fishermen to kayakers to give the seals some space, so it’s one less pressure on them.

Survivors weather the storm

Most of the adult seals will have survived this winter’s storms. Even though they have a strong maternal instinct, if the danger is too great females will abandon the pups and go out to sea. Miraculously, some pups did survive. They went on to be weaned and leave the beaches naturally – something they do from just three weeks. However, if storms of this magnitude happen more often, it’d undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on the population. It’s predicted that climate change may cause more volatile weather, but we’ll have to wait and see.

View of sea cliffs, RSPB Ramsey Island

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