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By Sam Russell
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
It is a show of natural beauty enjoyed by thousands of visitors to the Norfolk coast every winter.
Hundreds of white-furred seal pups nestle up to their mothers on the soft sands of Horsey beach, where basking baby seals spend the first six weeks of their lives.
And as the pups’ sparkling black eyes take in the grassy dunes and lapping waves, many human eyes look on from viewing areas before the seals return to the North Sea.
A record 28,000 saw the grey seals last year, and this year the Friends of Horsey Seals (FHS) group was founded to ensure well-meaning onlookers do not disturb the blubbery mammals.
The pupping season used to be overseen by Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Broads Authority, but they handed control to FHS and its 50-strong team of volunteers in a shake-up of the way it is managed.
Peter Ansell, chairman of FHS, said this year’s pupping season has started earlier than ever before.
“At the end of October we sometimes get the odd one or two, but we got 20 or 30 this time and they’re coming ashore much quicker,” he said. “This is the earliest I’ve seen it begin.”
Last year more than 500 pups were born, and more than 300 have already been counted this year.
And a voluntary beach closure is in place until the end of January – by which time it is expected that most seals will have left – to help keep them safe.
While people are still allowed on the right of way, it is preferred if they watch from a roped-off viewing area atop the dunes.
“We ask people in the nicest possible way to observe the signs so they don’t disturb the seals,” explained Mr Ansell. “It’s highly dangerous to the mother and pup to pick your way through as a pedestrian.”
He added that bulls – the male adult seals – can be aggressive if they feel they are threatened and can outrun humans on soft sand.
The Horsey seal population has escalated from a mere 10 in 2003 to up to 1,500 today. And with visitor numbers rising in tandem, conservation groups are presented with a challenge.
Erika Murray, Broads Authority ecologist, said: “People love to see the baby seals, especially over Christmas, but it is very important to respect their privacy and not to disturb them.”
She added that paths led to viewing platforms, dogs had to be kept on leads as some seals wandered on to the dunes and volunteer seal wardens on site would answer questions.
The dunes from Winterton to Horsey are also a site of special scientific interest, and erosion is closely monitored.
Steve Prowse, National Trust senior ranger for Horsey and Heigham Holmes, advised people to come in midweek for a “far more enjoyable visit” instead of visiting at peak times.
He also urged people not to block highways when parking.
For more about the seal colony, see www.friendsofhorseyseals.co.uk
The group is still seeking volunteers for this year, with training offered if enough people come forward. Call Peter Ansell on 01493 748516.
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