MEMBERS of the public are being invited onto the Farne Islands to visit Britain’s largest seal colony during breeding season for the first time in its history.
Visitors will be up close and personal with newborn seal pups as they get used to life on the rocky National Park islands.
The Farnes are home to around 4,000 grey seals, a population that gives birth to nearly 1,500 pups each winter.
This year, for a limited period, National Trust will share this experience with a new tour in which visitors will be able to land on the seal breeding colony for the first time in the Trust’s 87 years working on the Farnes.
From Saturday 13 to Wednesday 31 October two visitor boats will sail daily from Seahouses Harbour, accompanied by a National Trust ranger, and land on Staple Island, one of the larger islands. There, they will be met by a team of National Trust rangers who will share their first hand experience of working with seals.
David Steel, head ranger for the National Trust on the Farne Islands is looking forward to the new visitors.
“We’re really pleased to be able to offer this amazing experience to our visitors,” he said. “These National Trust tours offer the opportunity to get closer to nature on one of the best sites in the UK to see seals during pupping season. Most seal colonies are in remote places that aren’t readily accessible.
“The seal pupping season is by far one of the most amazing spectacles in the wildlife calendar on the Farne Islands. For the first time ever we’re able to share this experience with our visitors. It is a very special opportunity.”
Counting the seals may be less labour-intensive than counting the bird populations, which the rangers recently completed. That said, the seal count still requires a team of six rangers tagging pups with spray paint. Or rather, three tagging, while the other three distract the very attentive mothers.
While they may be the cutest things on the islands, you wouldn’t want to get too close to one of the pups. As David proved when he sat down next to one, which started clumsily lunging at him, the young are already starting to fight for their spot on the beach.
They can go from crying for their mother to trying to nip a ranger’s ankle in a split second. The bite is not all an unwary ranger has to worry about: seal dental hygiene is less than perfect.
“When we go counting, and we have to be walking around in the middle of the colony, we always carry strong antibiotics with us,” said ranger Will Scott.
“Their mouths are absolutely full of bacteria and other harmful things.
“That’s why we have to be so very careful, and if one of us is bitten, then we are taken off the island, to hospital on the mainland, immediately.”
The rangers are reassured, though, by the fact that the last seal count casualty was recorded back in 1975.
“There are only five cases of rangers being bitten,” continues Will, “which really isn’t bad, considering that this is the oldest seal colony count in Britain, entering its 61st year this autumn.
“That aggression just shows how quickly they mature. Basically, they spend about two weeks just sitting on the shore here, trying to stay warm, and then they are expected to be able to fend for themselves, teach themselves how to go swimming and find food and everything.”
David added: “That’s that, then, they’re off into the North Sea. It really is a hard life being a seal on the Farnes.”
To ensure that life is not any harder, the trips will keep keen seal watchers at a safe distance, under the direction of the National Trust Rangers.
Trips to land on Staples Island, priced at £10 for adults and £5 for children, are naturally weather-dependent.
The National Trust and Natural England advise visitors to wear suitable clothing, including sturdy footwear and waterproofs.
Tours will leave Seahouses Harbour at noon and 1pm daily. Spaces are limited and booking is advisable through the Glad Tidings boat company on 01665 720308. Please note that there is a separate charge for the boat trip.
To keep up to date with life on the Farnes, follow Head Ranger, David Steel’s Farne Island Blog or follow him on Twitter: @NTSteely.