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Wildlife in Winter: Photographing Seal Pups for a Painting

I have a painting of a grey seal pup propped against the easel in my studio that I am yet to finish. I was inspired to begin it after watching seals at Donna Nook, an RAF-owned beach in Lincolnshire. Every year between November and January huge numbers of these lumbering sea mammals haul themselves up on to this beach to give birth. It is the only place near here that one can really study them up close and it is bizarre that this natural spectacle takes place on a firing range.


The mass gatherings are known as rookeries and are made up of both local seals and others that have travelled from further afield. I’m not the only one that goes to see them. The new seal pups attract hundreds of visitors every day. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust encourages visitors not to venture onto the beach and disturb the colony. They have erected a fence to keep the seals safe.


Whether as a result of this buzz of human activity or as a precaution, some female seals are too shy to come right up to the beach and instead give birth on a sand bank about a mile from the shoreline. Tragically, just before I was due to head there, I heard that there had been a freak high tide, two and a half metres higher than usual, and the pups on this sandbank had been washed away. But there were still plenty of pups on the beach when I got there. At first glance the seals don’t seem to be doing much. They  look like large beached sausages on the sand. But I stopped and waited and sure enough I was rewarded with some wonderful action. I watched as a cub rolled playfully beside its mother. Its large dark glossy eyes and luxurious white coat were so appealing. It called out with a mournful sigh.

Of course I didn’t get to see any pups being born, because this happens under the cover of darkness. But I did see some that had been born the night before. They are easy to spot because their umbilical cord is visible for the first few days and their skin is loose and wrinkled. Despite looking tiny against their mothers, they actually weigh about 30lbs and measure about three feet long at birth. And they fill out quickly, trebling their weight on their mother’s rich, fatty milk with a layer of blubber which protects them from the cold. I also saw pups that were ready to wean. These pups are just three weeks old. Their downy white puppy-coat moults and is replaced with a sleek mottled grey pelage.

These ones were becoming adventurous. I watched one blowing bubbles and splashing in pools on the shoreline. I photographed another which I could have sworn was laughing. Its dog-like mouth opened wide in an engaging smile. Another rolled over and waved a shiny flipper at me. At last I was getting what I needed to make my painting come alive.


It was a good thing I went when I did because when these pups are five weeks old hunger and instinct forces them out to sea where they begin hunting for themselves. But it is still worth visiting Donna Nook since this is also the time when the adults mate. It hardly seems fair on the female, who, after three weeks of feeding her pup and not feeding at all herself, has often lost a considerable amount of weight. Nevertheless she becomes receptive to mating and the beach quickly turns from caring nursery to brutal mating platform.

I watched as aggressive males staked their claims over the females. The largest of the bulls are known as beachmasters. They herded the females up into harems of up to 10 and began posturing like heavyweight champions. One that I saw was covered in bloody battle scars from a previous battle. He growled threateningly at any rivals that dared approach. This is a dangerous time for the pups since they can easily get crushed as fights break out. After mating the female can at last have a break and she goes out to sea to feed up before the worst of winter. Delayed implantation, which means that the female holds fertilised eggs in her uterus in a suspended state of development, ensures that her pups are not born until the following autumn. Watching the youngest of the seals roll playfully on the sand, I felt a pang of concern for them knowing that in just a few weeks they would have to brave the cold North Sea on their own.









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