Half of the world’s population of the grey seal is found on or around the British coast and it has doubled in number since 1960. Grey seals mainly feed on fish, but will also rarely take squid, octopus and crustaceans. While they are found in colonies all round Britain, they are predominately in Scotland, with the one on the Marr Rocks at the North end of the Isle of May the one with which I am familiar.
A rare southern Grey Seal colony has been growing at Horsey (on the Norfolk coast between Waxham and Winterton) for the past 10 years. It started with only a handful of seals (a break away group from Blakeney Point?) and now there’s believed to be more than 1,000. The seals come onto the beach to breed between early December and early February. Access to the seals has been causing issues over visitors going too close to the seals, worries about the sea defences being eroded and the car havoc at Horsey Gap. With most cameras having good zoom options, you really don’t need to get too close.
Our visit was on one of the worst days of the year with rain slashing in from the Southeast—directly into your face as you stumble down the rutted mile or so from the car park. The beach itself is off-limits, for obvious reasons. Use the first access to the left near the WW2 bunker to get a glimpse without walking too far. But at this time (Dec 2012) the roped off path along the top of the dunes where people can observe the seals without disturbing them was closed from that point South.
Continue along the track behind the dunes, ignoring the concrete gap in the dunes and sea defences which was closed up with Herris fencing and finally you come to an area where you’re allowed on top of the dunes overlooking the main colony. Although visitors were once allowed on to the beach among the seals, this caused so many pups to become detached from their mothers and lost that everyone should stay off the beach and on the dunes behind the blue rope.
Grey seals seem so awkward on land, lolloping forward with waves of blubber showing along their bodies. But, underwater, they are immensely graceful and streamlined, capable of lithe, effortless turns and speed to catch most fish. Those here at Horsey probably broke off from the older colony at Blakeney Point or Donne Nook in Lincolnshire. All three are unusual, being beach colonies; most of the others are on remote rocky points far less accessible for us to appreciate them.
After commercial hunting in our history, it’s good to see these fascinating sea mammals making a recovery—although inshore fishermen complain they lose too much of their catch to their ravages. This colony is an excellent opportunity for much of East Anglia to catch a glimpse of them, especially in winter when larger numbers are ashore to pup and it’s not hard to find a white-coloured one suckling from its mother.
After braving the elements for the best part of an hour (the seals appeared supremely indifferent to what the weather was throwing at them) we retreated to Horsey’s conveniently located only pub, the Nelson Head, where some fine parsnip soup did much to restore circulation and restore us to a more human state of mind.