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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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.

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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.

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More to come on the seals…

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…

Giving nature (Manxies) a home

Ramsey Island is home to a wide range of wildlife; small and large, rare and common.  At present, however, significant efforts are going into, literally, making homes for one particular species; Manx Shearwaters.

When Ramsey was bought by the RSPB in 1992, there were only around 500 pairs of Shearwaters nesting on the island. The presence of rats had reduced the numbers of this species, and of other ground nesting birds, to levels far below those on the nearby rat-free islands of Skomer and Skokholm.

Back in the winter of the turning millennium, a successful rat eradication exercise was undertaken on the island. Since then, the benefits of doing so have shown in the increasing numbers of ground and burrow nesting birds. The last survey of Shearwaters, undertaken last year, and ‘helped’ by me, revealled that the upward trend was continuing with nearly 5,000 pairs recorded.

Whilst the increasing numbers of Shearwaters is very positive news, there’s still much work to do.  Monitoring the population remains a key activity for the RSPB on Ramsey and this task is made easier by constructing nest boxes through which easier access can be gained to the birds while they are breeding.  The birds usually nest at the far end of rabbit burrows and this makes them tricky to get of off but the nest boxes, with a door in the roof, make the job very simple. The monitoring includes checking on the health of the birds as well as ringing them.

One of my first jobs on the island this time was to help make nest boxes, some of the 100 to be installed on the island’s sheltered east coast.  They’re relatively simple wooden boxes to build, with three of the four sides enclosed, one of the longer sides having a round hole cut into it, no bottom, and a thick roof, one half of which is hinged to give access for monitoring.  Once installed, the round hole is fitted with a three-foot long tube through which the Shearwaters reach the nest chamber.  In total, I put together 11 boxes and they’re now waiting to be installed.



During the last couple of afternoons, we’ve spent a while out on that east coast and installed more than a dozen boxes.  The installation is also quite straightforward but requires a bit of hard graft. A hole just large enough to ‘plant’ the box is dug in the sloping side of the island, deep enough for the front of the box to be nearly flush with ground level. With the box in place, a channel is dug from the hole in the side and the is tube installed. All that is required then is for the back half of the box and the tube to be covered with soil and the job is nearly done. The last touches are to put some soft nesting material on the bare earth beneath the box and put up a small piece of bracken at the box end of the entrance tube; if this gets knocked over, it’s a tell-tale that the box has been visited by a Shearwater (or one of those pesky rabbits).


I’ve installed four boxes so far, and they’re more to be done.
One of the aspects of a stay on Ramsey that makes it so special is lying in bed on a dark night and listening to the odd chuckling and gurgling sounds of the Shearwaters as they come back from the sea and head to the burrows.  Hopefully, making homes for them will help to play a role in further increasing their numbers and make the nocturnal sounds on the island even more special.

An early morning chough watch…

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After a traverse across the clifftop, I sit high above the sea, lying back against the slope. The sun is long-risen and already strong on this mid-June morning, warming through the light cloud veil. My perch is cushioned by soft grass-covered earth and sheltered from the keen and cooling breeze by grey boulders, mottled by lichens of white, green and yellow. At my feet, the last of the pink topped thrift blooms jiggle in the wind like little candy floss-topped straws.

The distant views provide a backdrop to my vigil, both back to the mainland and out over the water. To my right, haze covers the distant Pembrokeshire hills, standing above the patchwork of fields hidden by the island’s curves. To my left, a two-masted sailor passes the outlying islets, with a freighter on a different heading in the further distance. The lighthouse is bright out on its rocky stand, lit by the sun gleaming on the white tower and shining back from the glass-enclosed summit. The blue hazy sky reflects beneath in the sea, a swell rolling into the land and hitting the cliff buttresses with white-topped waves. Standing strong against the elements, the tall rock faces tower above the surging and spilling water as it hits and covers the shoreline

It is a peaceful but not silent spot. The pounding of the sea provides a powerful constant base to the passing sounds of the birds. Gulls cry out from above and below, hanging on the rushing air or standing in wait. The coming and going of the razorbills and guillemots, from their busy and crowded perches, is accompanied by their revving moped calls. The ravens loiter on the cliff sides, an occasional cronk or caw highlighting their presence. The linnets chirp as they pass and the pippits pippit away from point to point. Only the fulmar are silent as they float past on their stiff, straight-winged glides.

After a wait, the chough pair appear from over my shoulder heading towards the nest, hidden behind a large carbuncled face, staring out to sea. Their joyous bouncing flight is accompanied by their cries, replying to each other with wall ricocheting bullets. As they approach their hollow, they harass a crow, standing too near for their comfort; they dive-bomb in a looping flight, returning time after time until their focus moves away, tired of their tormenting. They drop into their nest, now full of growing chicks ready to fledge, but not today; the wait goes on.