Jump in Farnes seal births

Feature on Atlantic grey seals on the Farne Islands in Northumberland.
Feature on Atlantic grey seals on the Farne Islands in Northumberland.

More baby seals were born on the Farne Islands this breeding season than for a decade, according to the ranger who spends three months every year keeping count.

David Steel, head ranger on the Farnes for the National Trust, leads a six-strong team who live on the islands, off the coast near Seahouses, for most of the year.

The breeding season for seals runs from September to December, and one of the rangers’ jobs is to count how many babies are born each year.

“We’ve been counting them since 1951, and it is the longest running study of grey seals in the world,” David said. “A lot of the knowledge we have about grey seals is based around study on the Farnes.”

This year, around 1,600 pups were born on the islands – a number which has grown every season for the past nine years.

Every pup that is born on the islands is marked with dye, and the team use a different colour every few days so they can track the movement of the newborns.

The mild autumn has spelled a bumper year for the seal colony, which, at around 4,000-strong, is the largest on the east coast of England.

The National Trust’s main role is to monitor the seal population, but in the 1970s there were major culls to keep numbers down – partly because fisherman claimed the animals, which can weigh up to 310kg, were eating through surrounding fish stocks.

“Attitudes have changed. Seahouses isn’t so much a fishing village – a lot of the boats have gone, and it’s more of a tourist destination. The seals breeding in October and November is actually extending the tourist season,” David said.

There is no running water or mains electricity on the islands, and David and the other rangers spend most of the year living in a pele tower on Inner Farne, which was built in 1540 as a home for the island’s monks.

“I absolutely love it. It’s a basic life – we can get cut off, so we have to make sure that we have enough provisions,” David said.

“You’re literally living with the seals. When it gets dark at four o’clock, you can’t really go outside because of the rampaging seals. A 40-stone bull seal is not to be messed with.”