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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

A short trip across Ramsey Sound

At the weekend I took the long route down to Pembrokeshire to pay a visit to Ramsey Island before it closes for the winter at the end of next month.  After spending another couple of weeks volunteering there in June, I wanted to visit later on in the season, especially wanting to see the grey seals pupping on the beaches.

I tried to make the trip a couple of Septembers ago but poor weather on three consecutive days thwarted my attempt.  This time I left my decision to visit to the last minute and with Saturday’s weather looking to be set fair, I set off down through Wales on Friday afternoon.  The journey took longer than usual as I went via a different route, using country lanes through the heart of mid-Wales, eventually arriving in time to watch the rugby in the pub.

Having left my plans to the last minute, I couldn’t get a room in the B&B I used last time; the Coach House in the centre of St David’s.  Instead, I booked into the sister property, Bwlch Carte, a cottage with a couple of B&B rooms on the edge of town but only about 10 minutes walk from the centre.  I was glad I did as I woke to the view below – having left the curtains open, I woke to see mist across the heathland behind the cottage, with the hills poking out of the top – I’m glad I didn’t lie in!

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The weather was perfect and the crossing to Ramsey about a calm as I’ve seen it.  I spent the day wandering around the island, feeling like I should be getting on with some tasks, but instead just enjoying the scenery and sunshine.  I had hoped that the heathland flowers would still be out but they had long faded and I will need to visit in late August to get them in their prime.  However, just as photogenic, the drying grass and wilting bracken gave a rusty autumn tint to the land, showing that the fine weather was possibly just a last lingering flicker of the summer.

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Most of the way around the island, where sounds could float up from the bays, I could hear seals, but it was only when I got to Aber Mawr, the largest bay on the island, that the importance of Ramsey Island for pupping could be seen. Ramsey is the largest breeding site for Atlantic grey seals in southern Britain and around 700 are born on its beaches every autumn.  Aber Mawr had its fair share with cows and calves spread out across its sand, pebbles and rocks.

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The bird life was a little quieter than when I was there in June; some of the summer visitors were still around but the cliff-nesting birds were all gone to sea for the winter.  However, the autumn migration was well underway with waves of hirundines (swallows and martins) flying through on their passage south.  Before the 4:00pm boat arrived to take the visitors back across the Sound, including me for once, I spent a little time looking for a wryneck in one of the bays but without any luck – I’ll have to wait longer for my first ever sighting.

It was with sadness that I drove home yesterday – it’ll probably be summer again before I make another trip to the Island – but the long journey was well worth it, even for a visit of just a few short hours.