Friday 1st October comments: Today we welcome the month of October and it’s another crucial time in the Isle of May calendar. This month we will witness the huge increase in Grey Seal numbers around the island and the number of pups being born will swiftly increase. Although the island is now officially closed, it is a good reminder for everyone to take care around Grey Seals at this time of year as they can be found along coastal areas.
Seals represent a tremendous resource for wildlife tourism, and a means to reconnect people with nature. Unnecessary disturbance undermines the opportunities – by making seals more nervous, and in turn more easily disturbed. So it is in both our interests and theirs to be as careful as possible. When on land, seals are usually resting to conserve energy or may be nursing young. There are important thermoregulation benefits of being on land and staying dry which help seals to moult and replace their fur, which is important for their health.
Disturbing seals into the water costs them energy, creates stress and can lead to impacts on health, especially during the annual moult. If you get too close to mothers and pups they may get frightened and agitated. Nursing can be interrupted which is serious as mothers do not stay with pups for long and the pups must achieve a certain level of body condition to have the best chance of survival. Pups can even be injured by stampeding adults or even abandoned if the mum is frightened off.
As well as pupping, seals will haul out (including on beaches like Tentsmuir NNR and St.Andrews West beach in Fife and may be disturbed by being closely approached from the sea or land, including by people on foot. They are particularly sensitive to the presence of dogs, even if the dogs are on a lead. Seals are one of the easiest species in which to identify disturbance. They have a clear three-stage response which has been documented in a number of studies.
When approaching seals, stop at a safe distance away and observe them through binoculars or a telescope. Determine their current behaviour and, as you approach, look for any changes to this behaviour. The first sign that seals are becoming disturbed is the “heads up” response. This is associated with vigilance and means seals are starting to perceive you as a potential threat. If you notice this behaviour, back off and/or change your method and speed of approach. The second stage of disturbance is usually shifting around and becoming agitated. At this point you are getting too close and should back off carefully. If you don’t, this may then lead to the third stage – flushing or stampeding into the water. This undoubtedly constitutes disturbance and should be avoided whenever possible. If the seals slip gently into the water one by one, this may be just curiosity – to get a better look at you – but it may be to ensure that they are safe and that you are not threatening. In most cases this is not a problem, although it may become so if seals are repeatedly leaving their haul-out sites as a result of disturbance.
So please respect wildlife especially seals at this time of year and for more information check out the full ‘best practice guide for watching marine Wildlife’ which is linked here: https://www.nature.scot/doc/guide-best-practice-watching-marine-wildlife-smwwc-part-2
And if you can’t go to see seals yourself then don’t worry we’ll be bringing you lots of news and stories from the Isle of May pupping grounds over the next month or so, so stay tuned and catch-up from the comfort of your living room. Its officially seal season…