Rescue and rehabilitation centres for seals

'Let nature take its course'. This sounds simple enough, but it is not really that straightforward. For seals, this means 'doing what comes instinctively'... so for seal pups and their mums it means finding their chosen beach uninterrupted for three weeks and then mum leaving the weaner to fend for itself. Hunger eventually draws the weaner seaward and so it begins its epic period of post weaning dispersal around the Celtic sea, making its own mental map within which it may spend the rest of its life and we know for some weaners this means journeys of more than 1000 miles in just a few weeks. Natural mortality rates for seal pups are very high...15% die in the first three weeks of life and an additional 40 to 60% die before reaching their second birthdays (JNCC 2005). So it may be surprising to discover that up to 75% of all pups born may not survive in the wild. This is nature. But...and it is a big BUT...this is not the end of the story, as people feature in this story both negatively and positively.

Within their first three weeks of life some pups will be found by people, who are with increasing regularity, accessing even remote stretches of the Cornish coast via the coast path or from the sea in an ever broadening range of personal sea craft. Often unintentionally and meaning well, these people will hang around out of concern for the pup, even approach it closely, or worse touch the pup or force it back into the sea. All of these actions will progressively increase the likelihood that the mother will be too disturbed to return to her chosen beach to feed her precious pup and so condemn the pup to death. Whilst seal mum instincts to look after and feed her pup are very strong, many are sensibly very wary of the history they share with people and ultimately it is better for the seal mum to survive and have the chance of successfully rearing another pup next year. So the 15% mortality rate becomes higher because of human disturbance.

Whether you believe that climate change has anthropogenic roots or not, its effects, in the form of more frequent extreme weather events, mean that increasing numbers of mothers become separated from their pups in massive storm swells over spring tides. These extreme weather events also cause faster coastal erosion rates. In the last year to our knowledge, four pupping caves have been affected by cliff falls. Two major caves were blocked after the start of the breeding season trapping the pups and at least some of their mums. Another rock fall was known to have killed a pup, although its mother escaped. So the 15% mortality rate becomes even higher as a result of climate change.

But negative human impacts on seal pups are not yet over. Pups that are lucky enough to be successfully weaned at three weeks get exhausted by the long swims of their post weaning dispersal. Finally making landfall, they haul out on a remote Cornish beach for a well earned sleep. As young inefficient feeders and with less blubber to protect them, it is these weaners that are the most vulnerable of all seal age groups (with perhaps the exception of very heavily pregnant mothers) to disturbance by people and dogs. A longer tourist season and increased leisure time for locals means that the chance of an exhausted weaner being disturbed back into the sea by people is higher than ever. Repeatedly flushing weaners back into the sea can severely undermine their energetics and take them to weight thresholds below which it becomes impossible for them to recover. So more than ever, weaners are unintentionally being condemned to slow deaths from starvation, raising even the additional 40 to 60% mortality rates for this age group of pups.

As inefficient feeders in their first year of life, seal survival is limited by prey availability. Their preferred food is sandeels, whose numbers are affected by plankton levels and a range of other human influences such as pollution levels, dredging activities and fisheries. An inability to find enough food as a result of a range of human activities results in further increasing mortality rates above 40 to 60%.

Exploring the oceans for the first time, these weaners are on a very steep learning curve. Highly curious, these intelligent creatures will investigate anything and everything they come into contact with, including rafts of storm damaged or discarded fishing debris floating in the sea. They swim round, over and under these net rafts to get a closer look and before they realise what they have done, they will swim through the debris entangling themselves in a fatal noose of net and so the 40 to 60% mortality rate get even higher as a resut of the actions of people.

So if natural mortality rates began at up to 75%, there can be little doubt that the cumulative actions of people have raised them even higher and possibly to unsustainable population level effects! So, what appears to be natural is not entirely so ... and is really 'nature taking its course' with an additional and significant human element! In an attempt to balance this additional human induced seal pup mortality, people take positive actions too. Many of the people who discover seal pups and weaners around our coast know just how to report their sightings. Healthy seals are reported to sue@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk , whilst those causing concern are reported to British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) on their 24 hour hotline 01825 765546. BDMLR will dispatch trained marine mammal medics to assess the seal pups. Many of these call outs result in healthy seal pups still with their mothers being observed and left in the wild. For those where human disturbance has prevented a seal pup being fed and successfully weaned by its mother, or where a weaner has dropped below a viable weight or become entangled, trained BDMLR medics will intervene and the young seal will be rescued. Seals rescued in Cornwall may be transported to a number of seal rehabilitation centres, although in Cornwall we are fortunate to have our own Cornish Seal Sanctuary (CSS) where most of our seal pups go. At Gweek, a nationally renowned animal care team will rehabilitate seal pups and weaners back to health, where they will remain until they reach the nationally agreed medical protocol release weight. So, this is where humans are taking positive actions in an attempt to counteract the unintentional negative impacts that increasing levels of coastal access by people are having.

For more information about seal rehabilitation centres, click on the centre name.

Seals rescued in Cornwall mostly go to the CSS or the RSPCA Wildlife Hospital in West Hatch .

CSS Sea Life Centre- click here for official visitor information and Dan's conservation blog

CSS Sea Life Centre - click here for the unofficial website home page and and details of individual rescued seals

RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre - click here for the home page and here for their marine rescue work

 

Of course, seals are not only rescued in Cornwall. Information about other rescue and rehabilitation centres around the UK can be found here:

Sea Life Sanctuaries (official) - Hunstanton : Oban : Scarborough

Sea Life Sanctuaries (unofficial) : Hunstanton : Oban

Mablethorpe Seal Sanctuary

RSPCA Wildlife Centres - East Winch : Mallydams

East Sussex Wildlife Rescue and Ambulance Service

Orkney Seal Rescue

Shetland Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Cornwall Seal Group are extremely grateful to all their members who volunteer hundreds of hours of their time to photo ID and watch over the seals around the Cornish coast, especially at pup time! If you would like to support the work of Cornwall Seal Group by helping to fund surveys such as this, you can email sue@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk to arrange to send a cheque or a contribution via pay pal.

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16/09/12