I am happy to admit that moving from the city to the countryside with two small kids was a bit of a shock to the system! Although there were things I missed there were plenty of benefits. For instance, for the first time in my life I noticed the changing seasons. Sharing this with our children is a real joy and one that I hope will give them a strong and lasting connection with the natural world around them. A highlight of our autumn calendar is bidding farewell to the swallows that nest in our stables and welcoming the raucous pink footed geese from Siberia (as they fly noisily overhead the girls and I always invite them for tea). But my favourite is the arrival of the grey seals to our local beach to have their pups. We have the joy of being able to watch over 500 adults and sometimes up to 1250 babies every year, who spend their first weeks on a nearby beach at Horsey.
About the seals
Around half the world’s grey seal population is found in Britain. They are a protected species and come onto the beach at Horsey, to have their babies and breed. It is magical to see these animals but they are vulnerable to disturbance from people and their dogs.
The females come to the beach and have their babies about a day after they arrive. 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 it's 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 them at Horsey
The seal population at Horsey is significant. Already this year guests have seen some pups. To visit them you have a number of options. During the breeding season volunteers from Friends of Horsey seals are there to help and guide you to the best spot. They also make sure people stay on the viewing platforms at the top of the dunes, and do not go onto the beach. To get an idea of what it is like check out this lovely little film by mummy blogger and explorer 'baby routes'
How to get there from the barn in Winterton on sea?
You can walk directly from Mill Farm – sometimes we get pups as far south as Winterton - but the main colony is in Horsey a 7.5km return walk, taking in the Nelson Head pub. See walk 5 of our walking guide to Winterton.
For an alternative, shorter walk, park at the Nelson, and you can follow a track to the beach, this is a 1.5 mile return walk. You can do this with a push chair, just about, but there is a stile to get over. The good food and roaring fire at the pub is always welcome. On a bright day between Christmas and New Year it gets really busy so plan to go early.
You can also park at the National Trust wind pump at Horsey and walk to the seals via the Nelson for about a 3 mile walk.
The next option is to park at Horsey Gap car park which costs £3 for 2 hours. Here it is a 10 minute walk to the nearest viewing platform. Sadly, none of the funds from this busy car park go to friends of Horsey seals. It hasn’t really got any facilities but is a good option if you have really young children.
It can be very windy on the coast so wrap up warm, particularly if you are doing the walk from the car park 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!
This is a wonderful organisations, run by volunteers, who help protect these beautiful mammals.
They ask visitors to observe the following code when they visit the seals:
· Stay a good distance away from the seals
· 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 marked viewing areas and respect the fencing
· Remember they are wild animals and should not be approached
Let's all wish those little pups good luck!