Monday, 31 October 2011

Farne Island seal research

National Trust celebrates 60 years surveying seals
October 2011. The 60th anniversary of one of the longest ever British mammal surveys is being celebrated by the National Trust.

Since 1951, wardens have been counting and tagging seal pups born on the Farne Islands off the Northumberland Coast. During this time, the number of pups born each year has trebled, from 500 to 1499, making it the largest English colony of Atlantic grey seals.

Nothing known about seals
When the survey began, scientists knew almost nothing about how seals bred, what they ate or where they went during the winter. Those early studies on the Farnes were groundbreaking, setting the standard for all later seal research around the world.

The seal colony is monitored throughout the autumn by a team of five National Trust wardens, led by National Trust Head Warden David steel. This dedicated team lives on the islands full time from October to December and they're regularly cut off from the mainland by storms.

"Out here you're really in the hands of nature. We can go a couple of weeks without seeing anyone else, it's just us and the seals. The young pups can cry like human babies so it can be really eerie but after 11 years I'm used to it," said David. One mother seal usually has her pup about 10 feet from the door of where we live which makes life interesting. It means that once it's dark you can't go outside!"

45% mortality rate
David also explained the perils faced by the young seals: "The first three weeks of life for the pups is the most important, as they must stay away from the open sea. They can't swim until they moult their white fur coats and put on weight. Big storms can wash many youngsters off breeding colonies at a very young age and we can expect a mortality rate of around 45% in this harsh environment."

The results of the Farnes Seal Survey are collected by the Sea Mammal Research unit at St Andrews University. Senior Research Scientist Callan Duck said: "The Farne Islands are an integral feature in the Berwickshire and North Northumberland Coast Special Area of Conservation and the National Trust's monitoring of grey seal pups provides as essential component of the information required by European conservation legislation for this area."

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