VET’S DIARY: Let sleeping pups lie if you spot them beached

Along with its castles, its wall, its hills and its dark skies, Northumberland’s coast is one of its greatest attractions, writes John MacFarlane.

On a good day, in summer, some of the coastal panoramas can look almost Mediterranean (even if the water temperature doesn’t quite measure up).

On occasions, though, the coast can be of a much less welcoming character. Never more so than on December 5 when we experienced our biggest tidal surge since 1953.

In those circumstances, life on the coast became a simple matter of survival. Out on the Farnes and Coquet Island, our coastal wildlife had to batten down the hatches and move to higher ground.

The islands of Northumberland are home to more than 6,000 grey seals and around 1,500 pups are born from September onwards.

They grow rapidly over the next few weeks, fed on the fat-rich milk of their dam and are typically weaned by a month old.

For the pups, there then follows the sudden realisation that their regular door-stop delivery has deserted them.

They have to learn, overnight, how to become fishermen.

Within a few days of the surge, life at Alnorthumbria Vets was spiced up with the delivery of the first seal victims of the storm. The pups, having been beached on the coast, were delivered by Andrew Smith and Lindsey Morris, mammal ‘medics’ for British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR).

The most immediate need for these seal pups is to be rehydrated. Strange though it may seem, despite inhabiting a watery environment, their source of water is derived entirely from their food – milk prior to weaning or the daily catch afterwards.

They look cuddly and appealing with their soft fluffy coat and their large dark eyes.

But the first time you catch sight of their front teeth and realise they’re not smiling, you know you’ve got a difficult case on your hands.

The first challenge for the vet is to apprehend and restrain the little blighters.

Usually a combination of distraction techniques and a large rolled up towel achieve the desired outcome and a life-saving dose of electrolyte fluids can be delivered by stomach tube. In most cases, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories are also necessary.

Their response to these treatments is nothing short of miraculous and, within a day, they are usually strong enough for onward transportation to Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Trust in North Ayrshire for rehabilitation and release when they are strong enough.

As if Andrew and Lindsey are not already busy enough (Andrew is a first aid instructor, a coastguard in HMCG Seahouses and skipper for Billy Shiel boats in Seahouses; Lindsey is a self-employed nutritionist and life coach, independent products distributor, beauty therapist and driftwood craftsperson), they are both finding time to help generate a database which will identify the final outcome of each seal rescued. The vast proportion of pups taken in by Hessilhead are successfully released.

My own next seal encounters came the following week.

After supplying Mrs Macfarlane with the obligatory cuppa in bed, she and I normally take the Border Terrierists to the beach for a morning constitutional.

The big feature of last week’s walks was the presence of beached seal pups on three mornings. One was there for two consecutive days and another on a different morning.

The Terrierists are usually game for a scrap with anything they meet on the beach but seal pups seem to be recognised by them as needing to be given a very wide berth.

Wise advice from BDMLR is that all marine mammals found stranded should be left well alone and no attempt should be made to return them to the sea. In the case of seal pups, if they are not yet weaned, any interference may reduce their chances of successfully returning to their mothers. Seal cows will sometimes beach their offspring while they search for food nearby.

In the case of weaned pups, they may be gathering strength before making a renewed attempt at refining their hunting skills. Either way, they are best left alone, conventional wisdom has it, for two tides before deciding that rescue is necessary.

The pups we found were clear examples of individuals which simply needed a bit of time to recuperate before taking to the sea again.

The best course of action, in any case, is to call BDMLR on 01825 765546 with location and animal description (out-of-hours number is 07787 433412). A trained local ‘medic’ will assess them and co-ordinate with Alnorthumbria Vets or the rehabilitation centre as appropriate.

The combined teamwork of local trained volunteer BDMLR medics, our vets and the rehabilitation centre ensure that these victims of our coastal elements get every chance of survival.

And if anyone knows of a source of small herring, let BDMLR know as they are the most effective indulgence for re-educating orphaned seals and they are in short supply.