Wild Pembrokeshire – the August Grey Seal Gathering
The day is bright and clear now that the early morning mist has dissipated, and diamond dewdrops are sparkling on the web-laced gorse and bracken fronds fringing the coast path. The coconut aroma of the gorse and the rich smell of damp vegetation and soil mingle as we turn off the main path and head down a narrow trail towards the cliff edge. A cock stonechat ‘chacks’ his warning from a gorse spike and a fulmar glides past on stiff wings. It is late August on the north Pembrokeshire coast.
As we near the void, with the silver spread of sea stretching to the horizon, strange sounds echo dully round the cliffs, an otherworldly siren moaning and keening, travelling on the updraft from the bay below. Although familiar, the sounds quicken the pulse and sharpen the senses, stirring a deep-felt connection with a wilder past of myths and legends. Dropping to all fours we crouch on the very edge and peer over to the beach below. At first all we see is rocks and the bright reflections from the sea, but, as we look, shapes start to appear – two long, black heads bobbing in the water just beyond the small breakers and another two large, mottled bodies lying among the boulders away from the water’s edge. As we had hoped, grey seals have returned from the open ocean to pup and breed on this secluded beach. As we watch, it becomes apparent that two white pups, looking from a distance like maggots, are accompanying the two cows among the rocks. Another is tucked under the base of the cliff at the back of the beach while its mother cavorts in the surf with the bull, readily identified by his larger size and bulbous Roman nose.
Grey seals are large animals, the bulls reaching 6ft 5in to 7ft 7in long and weighing between 370lb and 680lb, and the cows from 5ft 3in up to 6ft 5in long and weighing between 220lb and 420lb. They spend most of their time out at sea feeding on fish, shellfish and cephalopods. Mainly grey in colour, although often looking brown when dry, their unique pattern of darker blotches and spots can be used to identify individuals. They can be spotted at the surface close to shore or hauled out onto rocks and beaches to rest and digest their food.
Grey seal cows, accompanied by attentive bulls, come ashore to give birth to single pups on remote beaches and islands off the coast of Wales between August and November. When they are born and for the first two to three weeks of life, pups are covered in silky white fur that soon moults off to reveal the adult grey pelage. During this early life the pups are completely dependent on suckling the fat-rich milk of their mothers. After weaning, about five weeks after birth, during which time they have piled on large amounts of body fat and trebled their birth weight, the youngsters head out to sea to hunt for themselves. Mating takes place before the adults leave for the open ocean again, but implantation of the embryo is delayed until the late winter so that birth and breeding can take place at the same time each year. Disturbance of the cows and calves by approaching too close during the breeding season should be avoided; distressed seals can panic and stampede off the beaches and rocks into the sea, and cows have been known to abandon their pups.
During the 1970s, grey seal numbers had plummeted to 500 in the UK due to hunting and exploitation, but, since they were given protection, numbers have increased to more than 125,000 (about 40% of the world population) of which 6,000 are to be found around the Welsh coast.
From our viewing point above the pupping beach we watched as the cow left the water and humped her way clumsily up the beach to join her calf. With an exchange of soft calls and a touching of muzzles, the two reconnected before the calf moved round to suckle and the cow settled down to shield the pup from view. As we edged back from the domestic scene in front of us, a repeated piercing cry alerted us to the presence of a peregrine which angled across the bay like an arrow and disappeared round the further point, sending up a flurry of rock doves. It was a fitting end to a special natural spectacle and one that can be enjoyed by anyone in wild Pembrokeshire at this time of year.
David Gardner has a background in the environmental and conservation fields having been, inter alia, a salmon and trout farm manager, fisheries and conservation manager with the National Rivers Authority, and chairman of the Wildlife Trust South and West Wales. He is also a dealer in art and antiques, which must go some way to explaining what a great eye he has for creating beautiful images of the world around us. He can supply high-quality prints of these and other images to order, and he is happy to accept commissions if you have special subjects in mind.
Contact him at David4Rugs@aol.com
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