Protecting the seals

Seal pups on Winterton beachTHE death of a grey seal pup chased into the sea at Winterton by children last winter caused widespread shock and brought the difficult relationship between humans and wildlife into sharp focus.

Now measures are being taken to tackle the issue because, according to those with first hand experience of the problem “doing nothing is not an option.”

In recent years the Horsey colony has thrived and gradually spread down the coast towards Winterton. Last winter 2,600 pups were born along the stretch.

But the seals’ breeding success has brought problems. The chance to see such beautiful animals in an easily accessible place is a major draw. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people turn up in the area between November and February to marvel at the spectacle.

Most are sensible, keeping their distance and their children and dogs under control. Many appreciate the efforts of the volunteer wardens to educate them about the seals. But some ignore the warning signs and treat the animals as if they are exhibits in a petting zoo.

Now Natural England is installing a chestnut paling fence heading north from the diamond gap towards Winterton Ness in a bid to give some protection for seals and humans alike. And the parish council is approaching landowners, the beach car park and other organisations like Norfolk County Council to work on a future plan to manage the huge number of visitors.

The 4ft tall fence, which will run for 1.2km is not regarded as a perfect solution. But the hope is it will prevent a repetition of last winter’s distressing scenes. It will be permanent although sections will be removed if needed. A second rope and post barrier will run parallel, providing a viewing corridor for people.

Peter Ansell, chairman of the Friends of Horsey Seals, which provides the wardens, explained: “What was happening in past years was that seals were coming right across into the dunes and people were mingling with them.”

The fence is intended to stop them going further than the lower valley. If a surge is forecast, as happened in 2013 at Horsey when around 150 pups were swept away, sections can be opened for them to escape the water.

Keeping the seals off the dunes is one thing, keeping members of the public off the seals is another. The desire for a selfie with a cute fluffy seal pup is strong in some people. Whether it’s a lack of knowledge or a lack of care, the effect is the same – the possible death of the pup.

This is where the wardens come in, offering advice and information. “Everything we do is voluntary and everything we ask people to do is voluntary on their part,” said Peter. “We have no authority and we can’t ban people from going on the beach. We just try to use our powers of persuasion and common sense.”

It’s more than just giving the animals some space. The safety of the public is also an issue. Lulled by the almost dog-like appearance of the seals, some people don’t realise they can be aggressive. The large lumbering bulls can put on a surprising turn of speed over the sand.

Seals’ teeth are razor sharp and their mouths are full of bacteria which can cause a nasty infection called seal finger. It requires treatment with large doses of antibiotics. Last year a volunteer for a wildlife charity in the county was bitten by an injured pup he was trying to help.

Natural England senior reserve manager Rick Southwood said: “The last couple of seasons have been very difficult for the Friends of Horsey Seals volunteers.”

But they had got together to come up with a possible solution. “It’s not a bad solution really. It should keep the seals and people separate from each other, while still allowing them to get a good view.”

He admitted he had had his doubts about the possible effect on the stunningly beautiful dunes, which are a national nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest and home to rare plants and species including natterjack toads. 

But because the fence is being set down low it won’t have a major effect on the landscape. “We don’t want to cover the place in signs and fences. That wilderness quality is important and we want to keep it,” he said.

Visitors wanting to see the seals will be able to walk up from the car park towards the diamond gap then join the one-way corridor past the seals before returning in the dunes. Temporary signs will be put up to point walkers to the viewing area.

And like last year, dog walkers will be encouraged to head south on the beach towards Hemsby to minimise the risk of contact between pets and seals.

The scheme and the effects on the dunes will be reviewed at the end of the season when the rope barrier is removed, along with areas of the paling fence so people can access the beach from the coastal path. Rick said: “I hope it works. Doing nothing is really not an option.”

The seals have also had an impact on the village of Winterton itself, so much so that year-round no waiting restrictions were brought in on the northern side of Beach Road, prompted by scenes of parking chaos over Christmas and New Year.

Now motorists who don’t want to pay to park in the car park at the head of the beach choke the lanes and back roads, causing congestion and no little annoyance to local people.

Parish councillor Emma Punchard is working on the visitor management plan. She said: “The idea is to better co-ordinate support for the village, for example, make sure the parking enforcement people come on the days we know we will be busy.”

The project will also start to look at how the quality of the nature reserve can be protected and enhanced in the future.