Our introduction to the breeding colony of grey seals that frequent the beaches of Norfolk between Horsey and Winterton as part of a Wildlife Sound Recording Society field trip in December 2016 had been a wonderful experience. So when the calendar ticked over to November last year plans began to formulate for a return visit.
First trip of the season in mid-November took in the coast further north of Horsey. An early alarm clock had me on the beach in the dark, large shapes moving in the phosphorescence of the breaking waves on the thin strip of shingle between the waves and the concrete coastal defence wall. By the time I had my microphones set-up, the beach had emptied, with only the occasional bobbing head revealing the presence of any seals, but when I withdrew to the dunes after a few minutes, an adult and what I assessed as a yearling emerged onto the heavy shingle beach. It seemed not many minutes before the juvenile appeared to become bored and started haranguing it’s beach-mate to return to the sea and no doubt get some breakfast, a few minutes of which I managed to record.
The next visit was a far more civilised affair at the beginning of December, in the splendid company of Ian Rawes, creator of The London Sound Survey, who I’d met when he kindly agreed to speak at a regional WSRS meeting we had assisted in organising back in the summer. A lunch-time arrival in Winterton was timed to coincide with low-tide and with lowish winds, all looked promising for good recording.
It is an enthralling experience to be in the company of seals that afternoon. Joined on the dunes by a few hardy souls and patrolling wardens from the Friends of Horsey seals, we set-up microphones and settled back to some seal watching.
The special surprise of the afternoon was witnessing the birth of a pup, it’s mother giving birth high above the tideline and right below us on the dunes.
The last trip of the year took place just before Christmas on one of those damp, grey days when mist fills the air and sea and sky merge into one. Our first discovery was a pup carcass, washed 400 yards down the shore from the colony and now, eye-less and with ribcage exposed, providing a scarce meal to the shoreline’s scavengers.
Our next encounter was in the dunes, adults and fattened pups holed up in unexpected hollows that slowed our progress and prompted more cautious route finding. We reached the high dunes again and looked down on the beaches that three weeks previously had been full of hundreds of grey seals and their gently crying pups. Now the population was sparsely spread across the sand, with pups gathering much higher up the beach. Some had created mangers in the long marram grass that was assisting in the shedding of their cream-white birth coats and revealing mottled grey patches of grey of their adult markings.
It wouldn’t be long now before the beaches would be empty of pups and the small fluffy bundles of early December will be out riding the surf and storms of the North Sea and all it’s ferrocity.