If you want to come seal watching in Norfolk and in particular, you want to see baby seals, then Horsey and Winterton beaches are the place to come.
Visiting the seal colony at Horsey, especially when the grey seals have their babies in the winter is an amazing site. Last year 2,034 fluffy white seal pups were born on the beach at Horsey. It’s one of the highlights of Norfolk’s seasonal wildlife calendar and a must see if you are visiting the Norfolk Coast this year. Beware that it can be very windy on the coast so wrap up warm. It also can be busy on bank holiday weekends. It is magical to see these animals but they are vulnerable to disturbance from people and their dogs so please keep at least a 15 meter distance and during pupping season don’t go on the beach at Horsey.
About the seals at Horsey
Around half the world’s grey seal population are found in Britain. They are a protected species and come onto the beach at Horsey, to have their babies and breed.
The females have their babies about a day after they arrive on the beach. Their babies have a beautiful white woolly coat which is not waterproof. Staying on shore for the first 17 days or so, they are fed milk by their mums, putting on as much as 2kg per day. Within 3 weeks the mum has weaned her pup and she abandons it to live off its blubber and loose its white coat, known as molting. Once they get their waterproof coats, driven by hunger, these brave little pups go into the sea and teach themselves to catch fish. Over 50% of the pups don’t survive their first year.
After the females have weaned their pups they mate. One dominant bull (male seal) may mate with up to 20 females. Seals are territorial – if they are disturbed and have to move they and their pups are in danger from other aggressive males. Likewise, if humans approach too close to babies their Mums may abandon them. The dark brown or grey males are distinguishable from the females who tend to be tanned and more mottled in colour. Males live to around 25 years and females to around 35 years.
Seeing the seals at Horsey
There are two species of seals found at Horsey. The Harbour seal and the Grey seal. The main way to tell the difference is their faces – they consider Harbour seals to be cuter with heart-shaped nostrils. Grey seals have more roman noses. Another key difference between the species is their babies. Harbour seals have their babies in the summer. They can swim as soon as they are born. The grey seals have their babies between November and January on the beaches so it’s these little fellas you will see in large numbers. This cute little film is a great introduction to the seal colony at Horsey.
Grey seal facts
- Around 40% of the world’s grey seal population live in Britain
- They are a protected species
- The seal colony at Horsey is growing. Over 2000 babies were born here last year (2018)
- They smell terrible
- The females arrive on the beach and have their babies about a day later.
- Their babies have a beautiful white woolly coat which is not waterproof. They must not go into the sea. If they do they may well die of exposure
- Staying on shore, for the first 17 days or so, they are fed milk by their mums, putting on as much as 2kg per day. Ideally they feed 6 times a day, consuming 2.5 litres of thick creamy milk per day.
- Within 3 weeks the mum has weaned her pup, and she abandons it to live off its blubber. During this period the baby loses its coat, known as moulting.
- Once they get their waterproof coats, driven by hunger, these brave little pups go into the sea and teach themselves to catch fish.
- Over 50% of the pups don’t survive their first year.
- After the females have weaned their pups they mate. You’ll see the bull or male seals hanging around females and sometimes fighting for territory.
- Males live to around 25 years and females to around 35 years. Females are smaller
- One dominant bull (male seal) may mate with up to 20 females.
- About 60% of a grey seals life is spent at sea. They can dive to 70m usually for 5 to 10 minutes. Though they can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes.
- Between February and April around 2000 seals come out of the sea to moult.
Theories as to why the seal colony is growing in Horsey and Winterton vary but many think it is because of the offshore wind turbines creating habitat for young fish, thus increasing fish availability, others think it is a result of climate change as the seals move south from Scotland. It may also be true that the wind turbines have displaced the seals from previous breeding locations.
How to reach the seal colony?
For a short walk (the best option for the elderly and those with young children)
There are two main options:
- A short walk up the dunes to the Pill Box
- A 15 minute walk to the viewing platform (up some steep stairs)
The ground is a little challenging making it hard going but not impossible for wheelchairs or push chairs. Muddy puddles and seal facts en route to the viewing platform make this walk more fun for kids.
Beware there are no toilets and bring hats, gloves (the wind can be icy) and if you have them, binoculars. The nearest toilet and coffee stop is the delightful Poppyands Cafe on the main road. It’s a brilliant little 1940’s style cafe with real character.
To get an idea of what it is like at Horsey check out this lovely little film by mummy blogger and explorer ‘baby routes’.
1.5 or 3 miles Walk from Horsey Village
You can park at the National Trust wind pump at Horsey and walk to the seals via the Nelson head pub and then back via a footpath that passes to the North of Poppylands towards the church at Horsey. This is about a 3 mile walk. Check wind direction before you leave to decide which way around to walk.
For an alternative, shorter walk, park at the Nelson. You can follow a track to the beach, this is a 1.5/2 mile return walk. You can do this with a push chair, just about, but there is a stile to get over, a baby carrier would be better. When you get to the coast turn right and walk 500m to the viewing platform. The good food and the roaring fire at the pub is always welcome upon your return at the pub is happy for you to park in their car park.
Walking from Winterton
If you are staying in Winterton or with us at Mill Farm Eco Barn you can see the babies on the beach or hidden in the dunes. The seal wardens will direct you to the best place to safely see the babies but they are generally about a 20 minute walk from the beach car park.
You can also walk along the coast to Horsey. It’s a 7.5km return walk, taking in the Nelson Head pub. See walk 5 of our walking guide. Please keep dogs on the lead. Seal bites can prove fatal to a dog and by mid November and December large adult seals and pups can come up some distance into the Dunes around Winterton and Horsey. If you are a day tripper and need to park the beach car park is hardly ever full. It’s £7 a day or £1.50 an hour.
It can be very windy on the coast so wrap up warm, particularly if you are doing the walk with young kids. I once met a Mum with a portable water colour kit viewing the seals – their children happily painted a quick water colour of the seals to add to their experience – genius!
Friends of Horsey Seals
The Friends of Horsey Seals is a wonderful organisation, run by volunteers, who help protect these beautiful mammals. They train their new volunteers (I am one) in September and October and are always keen to find new local or non local volunteers.
They ask visitors to observe the following code when they visit the seals:
- Stay a good distance away from the seals. At least 15 meters away.
- Look out for seals in the dunes and give them a wide berth.
- Keep dogs on a lead and be careful – seals have a nasty bite.
- Keep to the marked viewing areas and respect the fencing.
- Remember that they are wild animals and should not be approached!
Want somewhere to stay?
If you would like to come and see the seal colony we offer 2 beautiful Eco Barns in the neighbouring village of Winterton on sea. They sleep 8 and 2 and can be booked for the week and weekend for a 2 night minimum stay. We also love hosting wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. We can convert many of the beds into singles, making us an ideal choice for groups. Check our availability here.
The best places to eat
Visiting the seals can be a lovely day out so I thought I’d give you some ideas for local food options and pit stops.
- Fine dining at the amazing Ingham swan – An ideal option for an adult group, if you really want to treat yourselves. This 14th century coaching inn serves up beautiful seasonal food using the best seasonal and local ingredients. It’s a special place to eat (some of my guests go twice in a weekend) and has a range of menus including Lunch de Jour and Dinner de Jour, À la carte and Tasting menus. It is about 20 minutes’ drive North of Horsey
- The Nelson Head at Horsey- Serves lunches, dinners and hot chocolates next to a roasting fire. There is also a good range of beers and ciders (they have 10 beers and ciders at any one time). Their kitchen is open from 12-3 and 6 – 8 every day. You can book evening meals but not at lunchtime. It’s dog friendly, so it’s a great stop off.
- This Fishermans Return in Winterton – Is a large village pub that serves good food (with massive portions) daily, though not all day. This is a good option if you are seeing the seals from Winterton or you are visiting the area at the weekend, as the pub is big enough to handle crowds and large groups. The cheesy chips are a particular favourite of my family.
- Poppylands cafe, Horsey- An ideal pit stop, this is a 1940’s themed café and they really go for it. The food is good and they also do 1940s themed afternoon teas. There is a bunch of war time memorabilia to check out and it a real trip down memory lane for older visitors. Open daily apart from Tuesday 10 and to 4pm. Book if you want one of their afternoon teas. They also do a Sunday carvery.
- Coastkitchen, Waxham Barns – I have not tried this place yet but it looks great. Fresh and seasonal food is served Tue – Sunday in this amazing old Barn.
- Poppy’s at Winterton Winterton’s new tea room, in the post office is open daily and does a wonderful and very reasonable afternoon tea (book ahead) . A lovely option for a small group heading home from seal watching at Winterton. It is also dog friendly.
- The Dunes café at Winterton – On the beach at Winterton the Dunes cafe does hot food and lunches as well as great cakes. It is open weekends and School holidays. Perfect if you are park next door at the Winterton car park.
My eating out blog gives you a more detailed low down on where to eat locally.