Trip Report: Donna Nook Nature Reserve
It was as if a huge wave had scooped them out of the sea and scattered them across the beach. In almost every direction, between the sand bars, tussocks of wind-whipped grass and channels of retreating seawater, was a groaning, lolloping mass of flippers, whiskers, and fluffy new-born fur. I had been told to expect this, and yet the sight, sound and smell of so many wild seals in such close proximity still came as a surprising assault on my senses.
I had travelled to Donna Nook National Nature Reserve on Lincolnshire’s coast to witness one of Britain’s greatest wildlife gatherings. Used by the RAF throughout the year as a weapons range, this deserted six mile (10km) sweep of sand, salt marsh, dunes and mud flats may seem like an unlikely, if downright precarious, choice of breeding ground. However, between late October and the end of December some 3-4,000 grey seals emerge from the chilly, coffee-coloured shallows and haul their way up the beach to pup and breed, just as they have every year since the early 1970s.
Donna Nook is just one of four grey seal breeding sites around Britain’s coast, with the other annual gatherings taking place in September in Wales, October in western Scotland and November in the Farne Islands in Northumberland. But what makes this particular site so unique is the fact that the majority of the pupping takes place on its beach, in full view of the 60,000 visitors that travel here every year to witness it.
“Donna Nook is special because it’s Britain’s largest on-land birthing site,” explained Dave Miller, a coastal ranger for the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. “Most of the other birthing sites are on remote islands that are hard to access, but Donna Nook is different because you can get so close to the seals so easily. It’s also possible to see a huge variety of birds here, including little terns, shore larks, hooded crows and rock pipits.”
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Stepping onto the walkway running along the back of the beach on a crisp November morning, we were soon greeted by a large bull and cow, basking in the pale winter sun. Even for an unseasoned grey seal spotter like me the differences between the two were obvious. Apart from their disparity in size (adult male grey seals grow to around 2.2 metres long and weigh 230kg, while the females grow to 1.8 metres and weigh 150kg), the cow was much paler, with dark patches scattered along the length of her body, while the bull had a longer, arched snout that Emperor Hadrian himself would have been proud of. Both the male and female grey seals are noticeably larger than the common (or harbour) seals that can also be seen along this stretch of coast.
Although the bulls come to Donna Nook to breed or fight other males with the same idea, the females come to give birth and it wasn’t long before we spotted the first cow with an inquisitive doe-eyed pup. Covered in a thick coat of glistening downy white fur, the pup used its flippers to push itself up the beach to within feet of where we were standing until its mother barked disapprovingly and it shuffled obediently back to her side. Nearby was another cow with a smaller, suckling newborn pup that could only have been hours, if not minutes, old. Dave told me that by the end of the suckling period the pups treble their birth weight, while the cows can lose up to half their body weight as a result. “The females will come here about two days before giving birth and then spend around two weeks feeding the pup until it is strong enough to swim,” he added. “The males tend to stay for the whole season as it’s the only chance they get to breed. During that time a big male could mate up to 100 females!”
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Helping to preserve the grey seals’ habitat and safety at Donna Nook
With 60,000 visitors arriving at Donna Nook every year to see the grey seals and only a single track road leading to a small car park, the reserve can become very busy from late October until the end of the year. In order to reduce the impact of people visiting the site on both the seals and the beach, the wardens have created a temporary walkway that runs along the back of the beach, while a fence has been erected to separate the spectators from the seals.
“If possible we try to encourage people to come during the week rather than the weekends,” says Dave Miller from the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. “We also ask people to stick to the path running along the back of the beach and not to touch the animals under any circumstances. Even a hardened zoologist like me thinks that the fluffy new born pups are cute, but you have to remember these are wild animals that can bite.”
Due to the proximity of the seals to the walkway, Donna Nook offers some excellent photo opportunities, but photographers are asked to follow the Nature Photographers’ code of conduct.
Two key tenets of this state that ‘The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph’ and that ‘Photography should not be undertaken if it puts the subject at risk. Risk to the subject, in this context, means risk of disturbance, physical damage, causing anxiety, consequential predation, and lessened reproductive success.’ For details of the full code, go to www.rpsnaturegroup.com
The further we walked the more crowded the beach became, the air filled with wails, grunts and snarls as protective new mothers issued warnings to other cows that strayed into their patch of sand, or hungry pups demanded feeds. Amid the noisy chaos unfolding in front of us Dave soon spotted a local celebrity. Her adopted name was Rope Neck, thanks to a distinctive scar around her neck. An information panel placed by her favoured patch of sand revealed that she has been coming to Donna Nook since 2000, when she arrived entangled in netting and clearly in distress. Although Wildlife Trust wardens were able to isolate her and cut her free, the netting left the deep wound, which is still visible today. Following her rescue she has returned every year but one to give birth to her pups on the same area of beach.By the time we reached the end of the walkway almost every available patch of sand was occupied, with a huge male snoring loudly in defiance of the maelstrom all around, its neck bloodied with the scars of recent battles. Nearby, a pup called loudly until its mother curled protectively around it, as if to shield it from the attentions of their noisy neighbour.
To witness these first, intimate moments between the cows and their pups in such close proximity was an undoubted privilege, providing a rare glimpse into the seals’ otherwise secret subaquatic existence. However, there were reminders that this is no Disney-style show, with blood-stained patches of sand and the detritus of birth scattered along the beach. While the vast majority of births are successful, there is no guarantee of success, and pup mortality on breeding beaches is between 15 and 25 per cent, although Donna Nook is comparatively safe, with pup mortality closer to 10 per cent.
“The number of pups we’re seeing is constantly increasing with around 1,500 pups born last year,” said Dave. “We’ve found that the seals born closest to the public have the greatest chance of survival than those further down the beach as they’re not exposed to the tides. The oldest mothers tend to come highest up the beach as they’re the most confident around people.”
A TOUGH START
For the pups born here it is only the beginning of their precarious early months. After leaving the relative safety of the beach, they face the hazards of the open water, and even the most robust young seal can quickly find itself in trouble. However, help is at hand in the form of two rescue centres – The Seal Sanctuary at Mablethorpe and Natureland Seal Sanctuary in Skegness. I arrived at the latter to find a number of young common seals that had been found in distress. “We’ve only got common seals in our rehabilitation pool at the moment as their breeding season is earlier than the grey seals, so they tend to get in trouble first,” explained owner Richard Yeadon, whose family has been running the rescue centre since 1965. “We’ll start to see the first grey seals arriving anytime in the new few weeks after the pups head out to sea.”
More often than not the young seals have been separated from their mothers by the treacherous tides or are suffering with illnesses such as lungworm, a parasite that affects their respiratory system. “We will typically get a phone call from a member of the public that has found them and send one of our team out to collect them,” said Yeadon. “Once we get them back here, we’ll treat them and feed them. If all goes well the pups are moved into our rearing pool, where they are taught to feed in the water and gain the body weight they need to survive in the wild. Some months after joining us, when the pup is fit, fat and healthy, it is returned to the sea.”
Although the seals might be the headline attraction along the Lincolnshire Coast during the winter, there are plenty of other wildlife watching opportunities worth staying for. Before heading home, I took the opportunity to visit Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve, known affectionately locally as ‘Gib’, just south of Skegness, where it’s the birds that draw the crowds. “Gibraltar Point offers a very different experience to Donna Nook,” said Dave. “It’s on The Wash, which is a big estuary with vast areas of mud flats and salt marshes that are a stopping point for huge numbers of migratory birds, especially wading birds such as bar-tailed godwits, golden plovers, whimbrels, and hundreds of thousands of knot. Seeing these large flocks can be a spectacle in itself.”
Matt stayed at Brackenborough Hall Coach House (01507 603 193; www.brackenboroughhall.com), a grade 2* moated manor house just outside Louth in Lincolnshire, which has three converted self-catering apartments within an 18th- century coach house, accommodating up to 12 people (or groups of 24 across the three apartments). Prices start at £395 per week in the smaller Stables or Saddle Room apartments or £795 per week at the larger Granary apartment. From here it is a 30 minute drive to Donna Nook.
Donna Nook is on the Lincolnshire Coast, just north of the village of North Somercotes. From the south (London) head north on the A1 before joining the A16 as far as Louth and heading east to the coast on the B1200. From the north, head south to join the M62 east, followed by the M18, M180 andA18 before continuing east on Pear Tree Lane to join the A1031 to the coast.
TIPS & WARNINGS:
Donna Nook is a small site with limited facilities and can get congested during peak season. Try to visit during the week to avoid the crowds and stay on the path running along the back of the beach to see the seals.
WHEN TO GO:
The grey seals arrive from late October and stay until the end of December. This is also a great time to see migratory birds at other reserves along the coast, including Gibraltar Point.
LINCOLNSHIRE WILDLIFE TRUST, Tel: 01507 526 667; www.lincstrust.org.uk
NATURELAND SEAL SANCTUARY SKEGNESS, Tel: 01754 764 345; www.skegnessnatureland.co.uk
Spread over 430 hectares and extending for a distance of about three miles from the southern end of Skegness to the entrance of The Wash, the reserve was established to protect this unspoilt stretch of coastline and the wildlife it attracts. At the heart of the reserve a visitor centre with an interactive Wild Coast exhibition and The Lookout, an indoor viewing area overlooking the salt marshes. Across the site is a network of paths connecting the different habitats and freshwater lagoons, where a series of hides have been erected for keen birders, along with one of Britain’s oldest observatories, which was opened in April 1949. For those who don’t fancy setting up camp for the day, a short walk across the site is enough to appreciate its diverse birdlife, with the highlights of my own tour including a squadron of honking Brent geese that glided overhead and a lone curlew that lingered long enough for me to photograph it before taking flight.
As a passionate advocate for Gibraltar Point and the Lincolnshire coast as a whole, Dave is keen to encourage the thousands of visitors that come to Donna Nook every year to venture a little further: “This area is unique because you’ve got such a range ohabitats in a small area,” he says. “We’ve got the Humber with its mud flats to the north and The Washwith its salt marshes and sandbanks to the south – both rich feeding grounds. It’s possible to see seals, porpoises and many species of birds all very easily.”