One of the UK’s great wildlife spectacles is the massive clouds of knot whirling over the shores of the Wash at Snettisham. It attracts both wildlife film crews and 100’s of visitors each winter. The Grey Seals that give birth each winter on the beaches at Blakeney Point ( England’s largest colony), are another Norfolk wildlife event . Recently, a change in the habits of the North Sea Grey Seals has caused an increasing number to move south. Populations from the traditional breeding grounds in the Farne Islands and Doona Nook in Lincolnshire have arrived at Horsey. This is now providing another winter wildlife spectacle at Horsey in Norfolk.
In fact nearly half of the world’s total population of Atlantic grey seals make their home around the coasts of the UK, especially on the rocky northern and western shores and islands. However, in recent years they have appeared in increasing numbers along the east coast at four breeding sites, Horsey being the newest. This year well over 1500 grey seals appeared to pup on the one and a half mile stretch of beach, including the first wild grey seal twins to ever be recorded.
We visited Horsey this year towards the end of April when the breeding season had finished, but at a time to coincide with the seals’ annual moult. Grey seals haul out on their beach rookeries twice a year. Firstly, during the pupping season, from November to January. This is when the cows give birth and the males compete to mate with the breeding females. Secondly, about two months later in spring they reappear. They gather together in large, noisy groups, when they need to moult. On our first visit about 500+ had hauled themselves out on the beach. Juveniles usually moult first, followed by females, and finally by adult males. Once the moult is complete they all head out to sea until next winter. Although, it seems that it’s possible to see some seals on the beach at Horsey most of the year.
It’s possible to access the beach and the rookeries viewing point at Horsey from a number of places. The easiest being the car park at Horsey Gap. Another option is to walk the 2.5 km from the car park at the Horsey Windpump. This track reaches the beach at another gap in the dune’s and near a second viewing platform.
We parked at Horsey Windpump and heard the sound of a Cuckoo calling as we left the car park. Crossing the fields from the windpump we headed for the dunes, which took about 30mins. The newly arrived Wheatears, sheltering from the cold north wind, caused us to pause in our walk. Unfortunately, the skies had turned grey so the light was poor.
As we reached the top of the dunes, we were surprised at the sight of numerous seals all along the beach. Groups of approximately 50 to 60 seals, of various sizes, were hauled out between each of the groynes along the length of the beach. In among the grey seal you could also see a few of the smaller common seal. At this time of year they seemed very relaxed and not concerned about people walking along the beach. We spent about an hour on the beach observing and photographing the seals before we returned to the car.
We returned to Horsey beach two days later, when the weather and the light conditions were better. Only a small group of about 40 seals remained,although the number of visitors had increased. They were very noisy and extremely smelly as they lay in the sand or surfed in the waves. It was an excellent opportunity to get some photographs in better light as well as images of the sanderlings that were running along the shore line.
Horsey is another great place to visit in Norfolk and set to become another of the UK’s great wildlife spectacles.
SEALS ARE WILD CREATURES PLEASE RESPECT THEM
- Seals bite – Be very careful
- Stay a least 10-15 metes away from the seals if they are hauled out on the beach
- Look out for seals in the dunes and give them a wide berth
- Keep dogs under control
- If there are viewing areas stay within them
- Seals are wild animals and should not be approached
- If you’re taking photographs, the welfare of the wildlife is always more important than the photograph.