Seals pups – born into a harsh world

It has to be said that the pupping beaches of Ramsey Island aren’t places of peace and quiet where the seals live in harmony with each other. They are actually places of sex and violence, right in full view of the pups (and often the visitors too!).

5R0A9135

The pups arrive in a blood-stained gush straight onto the stony beaches, gasping for breath and open to the often harsh weather conditions and surging tides. They struggle towards their mothers to get their first feed of rich milk, using their weak flippers to push themselves across the hard ground. Some of the pups find themselves in amongst bolder fields while others right on the water’s edge; either blocked in by rocks or at risk of being washed away by a surging wave.

5R0A8933

The gulls take a keen interest in the spectacle, waiting for the afterbirth to appear, a fine meal for them, which they sometimes tug at whilst it’s still attached to the female, eliciting an irritated response. They also look out for those pups struggling into life, those too weak to survive or taken away by the sea only later to be deposited lifeless high up on the strand line. This is a time of plenty for the gulls especially when the weather turns for the worse.

Storms take their toll on the seal pups, last year was particularly hard, but even a short-lived storm in late September this year took a number from the largest beach on the Island. With a  westerly wind, the waves rolled in to Aber Mawr bay, crashing up the shingle beach and against the base of the cliffs, leaving little room for the pups to resist the sea.

It’s not only the angry seas that the pups have to look out for. The adults are a risk to them too. The females are intolerant of others, whether they be adults or pups. Much of the sound coming up the cliffs from the beaches below is from quarrelling females arguing over space and proximity to each other’s pups. The aggression increases with the arrival of the males, it’s not only pupping season but the time for mating too. The males make claims for territories on the beaches and will fight each other to keep control of their patch and to mate with the females within it. I thought that grey seals had relatively tame fights compared to the elephant seals I’ve seen in the Falklands but I saw two really going for it at Aber Mawr with plenty of blood flowing from gashes on their necks.

5R0A8911

5R0A8686

The females give as good as they get too, warding off unwanted advanced from males with growling and biting, with fights breaking out at times. Even when they are in the process of mating, there’s plenty of aggression between the pairs.

However, there are times of relative quiet, with the females nursing their pups and others, whether large or small, relaxing on the shore, basking, stretched out in the sun. The only sounds being the water breaking on the beach, the gulls calling from the wing and a pup calling out towards the sea waiting for its mother to return from feeding.

5R0A9674

 

Pupping time for Grey Seals on Ramsey Island

September on Ramsey Island is right in the middle of grey seal pupping season. I have to say that, despite views to the contrary, my real wildlife interests are in mammals rather than birds, so a couple of weeks on the Island at this time of year gives me an opportunity to take a look at some of the UK’s biggest.

Ramsey is the largest pupping location in south-west Britain and around 500 to 700 born on its beaches each year between August and November. Walking around the island, the calls of the adults and pups can be heard coming up from the shoreline in most places and I could even hear them whilst I was lying in bed this morning.

5R0A8544

My time on Ramsey this year hasn’t just been spent looking at them for fun, I have also been helping with the ongoing monitoring work that the RSPB do. I have been helping out with two sets of work. The first involves taking photographs of the adults; the images are then uploaded onto a database which has pattern recognition software and can identify individual seals. This enables the seals to be tracked between different locations on Ramsey and much further afield.

The second monitoring task has been surveying the pupping beaches every three days. The surveys involve counting all pups, all females on the beaches, females in the water, all males and any dead pups (old or recent). The pups are also categorised according to a set of aged-related parameters:

  • Class I – new born – very loose baggy skin, wet/red umbilicus – 14kg
  • Class II – 6 to 10 days old – starting to fill out but still an obvious neck, no loose skin folds on the body
  • Class III – 11 to 15 days old – Outline rounded to barrel shaped, no wrinkles, no neck
  • Class IV – 16 to 20 days old – Patches of white natal fur moulted to reveal first-year pelage underneath
  • Class V – 21 days + – Fully moulted, independent and weaned – 45kg

It’s quite amazing just how fast the pups grow and that in just three weeks they are weaned and independent. Growing at an average rate of 1.5kg a day on the rich milk of their mothers, they soon turn from yellowy-white wrinkly bags of wet fur, through to miniatures of their parents.

Aber Mawr, just south of the Bungalow where the volunteers stay, is the largest bay on the Island and also the largest pupping beach. The first count I did there revealed 91 pups but a few days later, following a storm, there had been a drop of nine. Compared to some of the storms last year, however, the pups got off quite lightly. Storm Orphelia, in October 2017, washed away many pups with the count across the Island dropping from 120 to 31. We’ll have to wait and see what further storms come their way this year.

5R0A8554 (1)

More to come on the seals…

A brief sunny spell…

After what has seemed like endless days of cloud, rain and wind, yesterday afternoon turned sunny and in the shelter from the wind provided by the east coast slopes of Ramsey Island, it was momentarily summer again. I went out to take photos of seals on some of the pupping beaches – largely for scientific purposes – but I did get some nice more artistic shots of them and this scene below.

5R0A8843

This shot is looking north-eastwards across the Bitches (the reef of rocks stretching out from the Island’s coast), and onto the Pembrokeshire Coast. In the left-middle distance are the two RNLI Lifeboat Stations and on the left is the small peak of Carn Llidi, with St. David’s head disappearing further beyond. There aren’t many flowers left blooming on the Island but there are a few pockets of gorse and heather still out in the early autumn sun.

September on Ramsey Island

Last year I was lucky enough to have an extra week on Ramsey Island, on top of my usual fortnight. I’ve been volunteering each year for the RSPB on the Island since 2012 but before that extra week, I had never stayed in September. Having enjoyed that week, I decided that I would book my fortnight this year in September too as opposed to my usual springtime stay.

Ramsey Island in September is very different from earlier in the year. Gone are cliff-nesting seabirds and so have many of the other birds from the Island’s sheep fields and maritime heathland. All but the last few flowers have disappeared, with the final purple flushes of the heather dotted here and there. Even the bracken is falling over with the deep green turning to reds, oranges and rustiness.

I arrived on Saturday but there haven’t been any visitor boats since. Usually there are incoming boats at 10am and 12pm bringing up to 40 visitors each but the wind has been strong enough to prevent them from running, so there have only been four of us on the island for the past few days (Greg, the site manager, Alys, a student studying the seals and two of us volunteers). It looks like this will continue until at least Saturday with more wind forecast and the seas not having much chance to subside.

It’s been lashing it down with rain again today, so we spent time painting the Bungalow (where the volunteers stay) but we also went out to do the latest round of surveys of the grey seal pupping beaches – more on those in a later post.

I’ve been a little slow with my blogging of late but hope to have a few more posts before my stay is over…

IMG_0561

A short trip to Pembrokeshire

Last weekend I had a short trip down to Pembrokeshire for a spring day visit to Ramsey Island and a first visit to Skomer. Unfortunately, the weather got in the way and no boats sailed to Skomer on the first day and I had my shortest ever visit to Ramsey on the second. As always seems the case, it was a stunningly lovely day when I arrived on Ramsey but the weather from the previous day was still having an effect. Two volunteers were being taken across on the 10:00am boat and I caught a lift, only to be told an hour later that all boats for the rest of the day had been cancelled due to swell and I had to be taken off. My small island jinx this year seems to have struck again; I waited a whole week to get to St Kilda last month but failed due to strong winds.

However, there’s more to Pembrokeshire than simply the islands. I went for a wander along the coast path near to Strumble Head. Despite the wind and rain, the spring flowers were putting on a great show with thrift, spring squill, bluebells, cowslip, primrose and gorse all out on the cliff tops. The flowers were also out in the roadside verges and high hedgerows with the red campion particularly abundant. Pembrokeshire is blessed when it comes to the springtime and when the sun came out there couldn’t have been anywhere prettier on that May day.

I also sampled more of the local Pembrokeshire food, dining at St David’s Kitchen in the evening, including a plate of Ramsey Island mutton, and had great fish and chips from The Shed at Porthgain – the best I’ve had in a very long time.

St David’s was also looking it’s best and the sunset on my last evening was spectacular…

IMG_8747

Pembrokeshire really is a hidden gem; it’s like Cornwall, but without the crowds.

Back again…

I feel privileged enough as it is to spend a fortnight each year volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but this year I’m luckier still – I’ve just landed for an extra week! It might be a short stay as I’ve arrived a day late, due to strong winds yesterday preventing the boat from running and I may have to leave as early as Thursday for the same reason. However, it’s just great to be back and to see the Island in its autumn colours.

With a day to spare in Pembrokeshire yesterday I spent a few hours touring around parts that I have only previous seen from a distance while on the Island. It was a dark and foreboding kind of day for the most part so the photos below are all in black and white.

Working with the sheep

One of the great things about volunteering on Ramsey Island is the chance to get involved (even in a small way) in the running of the farm, and in particular looking after the sheep.  During my last two stays shearing took place, and last year I helped to round the sheep up and separate the ewes from their lambs ready for the shearers to do their stuff.  Today, the ewes were given their anti-fly treatment and had to be rounded up with their lambs from the nursery fields and taken into the barn.  Dewi, the island sheepdog (and without doubt the best dog in the world!), did most of the rounding up, although I did play the role of sheepdog in one field and ‘expertly’ drove a few ewes and their lambs to join the rest (and without as much as a ‘come by’ or ‘away’ having to be shouted at me!).

Here’s a few pictures…