Getting the best from Beavers – what kind of protection do they need?

On 24th November 2016 Roseanna Cunningham, the Scotland Environment Secretary, announced that the Scottish Government was minded to allow the established populations of reintroduced free-living beavers (Castor fiber) to remain, and to add beavers to the list of European Protected Species (EPS) and hence subject to the strict protection measures afforded by the Habitats Directive.  Cue much rejoicing on the part of nature conservation bodies and wildlife enthusiasts.  ‘This milestone moment’ said the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT).  ‘A landmark decision’ said RSPB Scotland.

For myself, though, the feelings were mixed.  Not because I do not want to see beavers back as part of the British fauna – I do, I think it’s great, they have much to offer the ecology of this country and I look forward to being able to watch them going about their business here as I have had the pleasure of doing in North America.  No, my concern was over the assumption that making them a European Protected Species is desirable or necessary for their protection and management.

Still, it was a milestone moment.  Nobody could say that the official approach to beaver reintroduction in Scotland has been rushed.  Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) started consultations on the possibility in 1995, but it was not until 2009 that an official trial was set up in Knapdale, a remote part of the West Highlands, chosen because it would not be easy for the beavers to spread naturally from there into the rest of Scotland and thus would allow them to be rounded up again if it was decided not to proceed further.

In the meantime, however, it emerged that persons unknown had been releasing beavers (or allowing them to escape) into the catchment of the mighty Tay, Britain’s largest river system.  Apart from occupying a substantial part of Scotland, the Tay system embraces the full spectrum of habitats that Scotland has to offer from treeless mountains and uplands to some of the finest and most extensive and luxuriant woodlands and forests, many lochs, rich agricultural land and two cities (Perth and Dundee) as well as numerous towns and villages.  The beaver population was estimated at 146 in 2012 and subsequent studies have shown that it is continuing to grow and expand.  Population densities are highest on the Earn and the Isla – tributary rivers with good farmland catchments.


It was on the Tay, at Birnam, that I attended an excellent two-day training course in beaver ecology and management last September run by Roisin Campbell-Palmer.  Roisin has been working with reintroduced beavers for years – at Knapdale, on the Tay and elsewhere – and really knows her stuff.  During the first part of the course we learned many things about the behaviour and ecology of beavers, including why they build dams (to ensure they always have water to retreat to when accessing their plant food and to ensure they have an underwater entrance to their lodges) and key aspects of their social life (they are devoted to family, intensely territorial, and as violent as mafiosi in defence of these).  After lunch we went to look for beaver field signs, but not in the kind of secluded Highland environment I was expecting.

‘We’ll drive down to Perth’, said Roisin, ‘Park outside Marks and Spencer’s and walk from there.’

And so it was beside the cyclepath on the northern edge of Perth, near the confluence of the River Almond with the Tay, that we were familiarised with the main signs of beaver activity – felled tree stumps and bark-stripped twigs and branches.  It also brought home to us that beavers are quite happy to move into towns.

Beaver-felled tree
The distinctive nibblings of Beavers

Later that day, a damp and gloomy evening, having established that the dog-walkers of Birnam and Dunkeld not infrequently see beavers, I spent some time on the leafy banks of the Tay itself.  Birnam is famous for two ancient trees – the Birnam Oak and the Birnam Sycamore – which sit on the edge of the willow thickets that fringe the river.  It is thought that the Birnam Oak could be as much as 600 years old, and if so then it is entirely possible that beavers swam past its roots when it was a youngster – and maybe even eyed it up as lodge-construction material.  The river backwaters nearby were all bobbing with stark white beaver-stripped twigs, but I think the Oak is big enough now to be safely beyond the reach of even the most ambitious beaver!

The Birnam Oak – should be safe from beavers by now!

On the second day we looked more closely at the management issues beavers pose – which essentially fall into two categories.  Firstly, there is the felling of trees we would rather they didn’t in our gardens and orchards – relatively easily mitigated by deterrent fencing and bark treatments – but it can make them unwelcome neighbours for keen suburban gardeners as we saw in the little town of Bridge of Earn.  Secondly there is the damming of drains, culverts and ditches.  This is a much greater challenge.  Yes, holding back and slowing the flow of water and creating new ponds and wetlands can help to alleviate flooding and the run-off of excessive nutrients.  But the beavers do not always block the watercourses we would like them to.  Our roads, sewers, housing and agriculture only work properly if we can manage water levels and water flows in, around, under or through them, and this does not fit comfortably with the beaver’s agenda of maximising wetness at every opportunity.  Like us, they are creatures that modify their environment to suit themselves, and it is going to be a real challenge to accommodate their needs alongside ours in our heavily modified and intensively used land.

Roisin and trainees in Bridge of Earn

Still, this is a challenge we are going to have to rise to, whether we like it or not.  It was very gracious of the Scottish Government to announce that beavers could stay – but it was a bit like saying the stable door could now be left open after the horses had all galloped off down the lane.  Practically and politically it would be incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to round up all the Tay beavers now, and given time they will, inexorably, colonise the whole of Britain.

Beaver lodges can be surprisingly inconspicuous

Given the challenges they pose, what sort of legal underpinning do we really need to ensure that we can manage our burgeoning beaver population effectively and humanely?  The Habitats Directive says that member states should consider reintroducing species formerly present in order to further their conservation, and the Scottish Government has concluded that since beavers were formerly present in Britain, and since they are on Annex IV of the Directive (the list of species in need of strict protection), then it is obliged to apply the strict protection provisions of Article 12 of the Directive to them.

However, as I have been saying for many years (e.g. Watson, 2008 & 2013), the problem with Article 12 of the Habitats Directive is that it is couched in terms of protecting individuals rather than populations of a species.  This might seem an obvious, indeed essential, thing to do, but in reality, by increasing the cost of avoiding potential disturbance and incidental killing of a few individuals, and by making the hosting of the species on your property a vexatious and sometimes onerous responsibility, it can be counter-productive.  For example, in the case of Great Crested Newts (Triturus cristatus) it can lead to the neglect and silting up of their breeding ponds (the biggest threat to their populations but allowing the newts to die out through natural processes is not an offence) and discourage the creation of new ones; and in the case of bats it can discourage the incorporation of roosting features into newer more energy-efficient (i.e. with fewer holes and gaps!) buildings.

Great Crested Newt – strictly protected and millions spent every year on it, but are its overall numbers increasing or decreasing?

In thinking about how best to manage the recolonisation of Britain by beavers it is worth considering some of the species that almost went extinct in Britain, and which have now come back from the brink.  In my post on seals ( I noted how the British population of Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) was possibly as low as 500 animals in 1914 when the first Grey Seals protection legislation was passed.  This did not outlaw the killing of seals entirely, it just set a close season for their killing which in effect protected them at their breeding sites, and banned some of the more barbaric killing methods then in use (e.g. the setting of giant, barbed iron spikes at haul-out sites).  That was all that was needed, and a hundred years later the British population is estimated at 150,000 and rising.

Grey Seal – with limited legal protection increased from 500 to 150,000 in a century

Another species that has returned from the brink of extinction without the need for anything other than minimal protective legislation is the Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus).  This very nearly went the way of the Beaver and the Wolf.  By the late 1700s, when the deforestation of Britain had left us at the most treeless stage of our current interglacial history, the only place in Britain where these little woodland deer were to be found was in the remoter parts of the Scottish Highlands.  Their fortunes only started to revive in the 1800s with the rise of plantation woodlands, first on private estates then, in the 1900s, with the spread of the Forestry Commission’s industrial plantations.  If it hadn’t been for these land-use changes, we might well have been sitting around today arguing the merits of reintroducing Roe Deer to Britain.  Instead, with expansion of the relict native population from the north and a couple of nineteenth century reintroductions of stock from mainland Europe into southern England (there’s nothing new about reintroductions!), the British population has boomed.  It was estimated at 500,000 in 1995 (Harris, 1995) and it will be considerably higher now.  This was achieved without any form of protective legislation (indeed roe are regarded as silvicultural and agricultural pests) other than, latterly, the imposition of close seasons for their hunting and the banning of certain methods of killing.

Roe Deer by @JacquiMair – from almost extinct to half a million in 200 years, again with minimal legal protection

Polecats (Mustela putorius) are the latest species to boom, and are currently spreading rapidly through the English Midlands from their Welsh refuge, again without benefit of strict protection.

Polecat by @RichardBowler1 – range and numbers increasing without legal protection

To me this is good evidence that strict protection of individuals is generally irrelevant to the prospects of reintroduced and recovering populations of mammals.  Not only unnecessary but also a positive hindrance, as can be seen if we look at the management of beaver reintroductions in different European countries.  One country that is endeavouring to apply the Article 12 provisions to beavers is Germany, in particular the state of Bavaria.  Beavers were reintroduced into Bavaria, which is slightly smaller in area than Scotland, in the 1960s, and by 2012 the population was estimated to be in the range of 12,000 – 15,000 and still growing.  Management of beaver issues is undertaken by two full-time beaver consultants and a network of about 200 volunteers.  This level of reliance on volunteers brings the cost to the public purse (estimated at about 1 million Euros per year) down enormously.  A lot of effort goes into finding ways of accommodating the beavers but there is an acceptance that some have to be removed because of the level of effect they are having on human health, safety and economic wellbeing.  In earlier days many of these were live-trapped and relocated, but there are now many more beavers needing to be rehomed than there are places willing to accept them, so increasing numbers are having to be culled (700-800 in 2011).  Although the killing of strictly protected species is permissible as a last resort, it has to be justified and reported on, and there is uncertainty over the legality of this management system, and an awareness that an adverse ruling from the European Court of Justice could bring it crashing down.

Scottish Natural Heritage commissioned Aylwin Pillai of Aberdeen University’s Rural Law Research Group to review various approaches to dealing with situations where protected species come into conflict with human activities and she reported in 2012:(

With regard to the Bavarian beaver management system she said: ‘Although the system has led to a reduction in conflicts and has continued to allow the beaver to thrive it is open to criticism for being expensive and overly bureaucratic’.

Further:  ‘Our interviews suggest that this strategy allows for the swift and effective implementation of derogations and results in the death of 5% of the beaver population each year. Although this additional mortality clearly does not affect the level of population growth in Bavaria it does highlight that, once a beaver population establishes itself, the regular use of lethal methods may be needed.

And, in relation to Norway which is, of course, not a member of the EU:   ‘In Norway, where beaver management is not subject to the constraints of the Habitats Directive, problem beavers can be dealt with either by hunting in the open season or by applying for a licence in the closed season. Conflicts between conservationists and land owners or users over beavers appear to exist rarely in Norway. As effective legal management options are available to land owners for the control of beavers on their land this reduces animosity between land owners and government and diminishes the view that outside authorities are imposing restrictive burdens on local communities. It is believed very few beavers are illegally killed in Norway because of the accessibility of legal management options. ……

She concludes:  ‘These case studies suggest that an effective way of managing future problems and conflicts of interest in relation to the Eurasian Beaver may be to involve both landowners and the state in designing an inexpensive and non-bureaucratic, legally compliant programme for dealing with problems as and when they arise.’

I am bound to say that given the Article 12 restrictions this suggestion seems pie in the sky, and I find it difficult to see how the Scottish Beaver Forum, a working group attempting to come up with just such a system, will do any better than the Bavarians.

Beaver by @IanHayWildlife

Given the Brexit vote, and the assumption that all parts of the UK will be leaving the EU in due course, one does wonder if it is entirely necessary to be so punctilious about applying the letter of a law that will probably be open to unilateral revision in a few years’ time anyway.  But I don’t want get into the intra-EU and intra-UK politics of the situation.  What I would point out is that there may be a way of achieving a Norwegian-type solution while still complying with the Habitats Directive.

There is already at least one EU member state which is doing just that – Sweden.  Along with several other countries that already had thriving beaver populations when they first joined the EU, Sweden secured an opt-out from applying Article 12 to its beavers.  Instead Sweden agreed that its beavers would be listed on Annex V of the Habitats Directive.  Annex V species are ones whose conservation status must be kept under surveillance and whose taking and exploitation may need to be controlled if this is threatened.  The framework for these controls is set out in Articles 14 and 15 of the Directive.  It is rarely appreciated in the UK that the Habitats Directive recognises this second category of protected species, a situation not helped by the term ‘European Protected Species’ being applied only to the ‘strictly protected’ Annex  IV species in the UK’s Habitats Regulations (the legislation which turns the European Habitats Directive into UK law).

I asked Goran Hartman, the authority on the beaver’s recolonisation of Sweden, how well the Swedish management model, based on close seasons for killing and restrictions on the methods used for this, was working in practice.

He replied:  ‘I would say that this system works fairly well. I believe that the main reason is because landowners are given tools to handle wildlife damages. Like many other species landowners become aggressive when they are trapped, and I can understand them. In areas with increasing beaver populations but not yet any possibilities to hunt beavers there were loud complaints but as soon as they were given rights to hunt the complaints stopped. It was now up to them to do something about the problems, within the given legal framework. This seldom stopped the beaver population from increasing as beaver hunting is time consuming and other wildlife damage (e.g. moose and wild boar) is more in focus. Farmers and forest owners have many problems and beaver damage is seldom one of the bigger.

So, for Heaven’s sake, let’s learn from our Scandinavian cousins who are so far ahead of us in beaver conservation.  What I suggest our government(s) should be doing if they wish to stay within the Habitats Directive framework is to say to the European Commission that either:

(a) it should move the beaver from Annex IV to Annex V as there are now well over a million of them worldwide and according to IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) it is a species of ‘Least Concern’ – ‘If current trends continue, the Eurasian Beaver will be a fairly common mammal in much of Europe within the next few decades’ (  I imagine there would be considerable support from other EU countries for this.  Or alternatively:

(b) since the reintroduction of beavers to Britain is irrelevant to the conservation of the booming global beaver population, the UK should be added to the list of countries in which beaver is included in Annex V rather than Annex IV.  If they are on Annex V then the UK would still be required to maintain them at favourable conservation status, but it would allow much greater flexibility in how this could be done, with far less bureaucracy and cost to the taxpayer.

(It is interesting to note that in the 1982 Bern Convention [the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats], the international agreement which led (often word for word) in 1992 to the Habitats Directive, the beaver is included on the list of ‘protected fauna’ as opposed to the list of ‘strictly protected fauna’.  If anyone knows who or what caused this change of approach during that ten year interval I would be very interested to know.)

The Scottish Government has just (6th March) closed its public consultation on its beaver management strategy (  Much information was provided in the voluminous supporting documents e.g. an in many ways excellent report Beavers in Scotland from SNH, but the SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment) based on these (also voluminous) is, in my view, an unsatisfactory document that fails to address the wider strategic issues and focusses instead on the impacts in the Knapdale area and the Tay catchment.  There is no consideration within it of legal options: the treatment of beavers as a strictly protected species under Article 12 is assumed.  I have been endeavouring since October, via formal Freedom of Information requests, to see the legal advice sought and received in respect of this decision, but this has been refused on the grounds that it would be detrimental to the abilities of ministers and their advisers to have candid discussions on the development of beaver policy and would breach the right to confidentiality of communications between legal advisers and their clients.  I do not accept this reasoning as valid, and will be appealing to the Scottish Information Commissioner but it is likely to be many months before an adjudication is forthcoming.  In the mean time, this post is my way of attempting to open up this aspect of beaver reintroduction to public debate.

Whichever legal route we end up following in order to manage our beavers, the lesson from Bavaria, from Sweden and from Norway is that we are going to have to cull some of them, and therein lies what may be our biggest problem – the psychological one.  The island of Great Britain is three times the size of Bavaria.  If we assume that our beaver population will boom as theirs has and that we end up with a similar density of beavers and similar management issues, then ultimately we are looking at having to cull perhaps 3000 beavers every year.  Are we, the animal-loving British public, ready for that?  Or are we just too squeamish to adapt sensibly to life with a thriving beaver population?

Young Beaver munching on Willow by @Lairy-Book


Campbell-Palmer, R. et al (2015) The Eurasian Beaver. Exeter: Pelagic Publishing.

Harris, S. et al (1995) A review of British mammals: population estimates and conservation status of British mammals other than cetaceans. JNCC, Peterborough.

Hartman, G. (1994) Long-term population development of a reintroduced beaver (Castor fiber) population in Sweden. Cons. Biol. 8(3): 713-717.

Jones, S. et al (2013) The battle for British beavers. British Wildlife 24(6): 381-392.

Pillai, A. et al (2012) Derogations for protected species in European reintroductions.  Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report no. 524.

Scottish Natural Heritage (2015)  Beavers in Scotland: a Report to the Scottish Government.

Tayside Beaver Study Group (2015)  Final Report.

Watson, H (2008) Great Crested Newts and their conservation: are we getting it all wrong?  In Practice – Bulletin of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management 60: 25-28.

Watson, H (2013) Better for man and better for beast – Bats, newts and Article 12(4) of the Habitats Directive.  In Practice – Bulletin of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management 80: 37-38.

Of Singing Seals and Drones

I have two bat detectors on the Farne Islands – one on Inner Farne and one on Brownsman – and visit them several times a year to download data and check that they are still working properly.  The Farnes change character remarkably during the course of the year, bursting with life during the seabird breeding season, then strangely quiet after the terns and auks head off in August until the following spring.  But some of the islands have a third facet to their character – these are the seal breeding islands, chief amongst which are Brownsman and its tidally conjoined twin Staple Island.  Come October, for about 3 months these become the domain of the Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus).  The lush growth of guano-fertilised herbage that in the height of summer covers everything that isn’t bare rock or fresh puffin-excavation is relentlessly trampled out of existence by hundreds of lumbering seal bodies so that parts resemble nothing so much as a First World War battlefield.

Brownsman in November – trashed by seals

The seals boss the islands, and this presents challenges on the final visit of the year to Brownsman.  There are only a couple of places where you can land a boat and whichever you use you have to run a seal gauntlet to get to the cottage where the rangers live and where the detector is located.  Mother seals are very protective of their pups, and bull seals are suspicious of anything approaching their females so there is considerable scope for inter-species misunderstandings.

Bull Grey Seal, suspicious of my motives
Cow seal, likewise

Seal pups start off as little creamy-white scraps with over-large heads, but within a few days of intensive suckling they swell into chubby white rugby balls.  Once she has them fat enough (after about 18 days during which time they have ballooned from ~14 to ~45 kilos) the female abandons them.  The bull seals are constantly patrolling the colony, fighting each other, squashing pups and sexually harassing the females, and by the time she heads off the female will be carrying the fertilised egg that will develop into next year’s pup.

Grey Seals are much the same weight as lions with strength and teeth to match – if they had legs rather than flippers we would be terrified of them.

Reasons to be thankful that seals do not have legs

Fortunately sex and child-rearing take place on land, and once they are in the water they are much more chilled, their curiosity making them a delight to scuba divers and snorkelers.

Dive Buddy off the Farnes – Photo by Ben Burville @sealdiver

Having been abandoned by their mothers the pups proceed to moult into their mottled adult coats, and are particularly delightful at this stage.  I don’t know if it is a term in general use, but the Farnes rangers call them ‘moleys’, which is very apt.


The moleys tend to drift together into loose groups, now and again galumphing around playfully, but mostly just snoozing away the grey days and long nights of early winter until after three or four weeks they head off to sea to start looking for food.  Now I started my professional career studying coastal-living otters in Shetland.  Otter cubs go to sea when they are about 2 months old but accompany their mothers for another year or so, and still struggle to survive when they finally have to fend for themselves.  It has therefore always intrigued me that Grey Seals are able to dispense entirely with parental education and support – in which respect they are more like fish or amphibians than mammals (and even some of those would put Grey Seals to shame!)  One would have thought that to begin with young Grey Seals would not venture far while they ‘find their flippers’, but far from it.  Geolocator tagging has shown that these babies promptly set off on what may be the widest wanderings of their lives.  Pups tagged on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth fan out into the North Sea and have been found as far afield as Holland and Norway within a few weeks of setting out.  They forage primarily on the seabed and the whole of the North Sea, which is relatively shallow, is their oyster – one male pup was even recorded diving to over 200m in the Norwegian Trench.

For the pups, this is a desperate race against time that pits their ability to learn how, where and when to dive and catch fish against those dwindling fat reserves that are providing them with energy and keeping the cold at bay.  Mortality is high and when you look at this equation you wonder why the moleys don’t head off to sea as soon as possible rather than lolling around on land for the thick end of a month and losing up to a quarter of their body weight in the process.  However evolution would have long since winnowed out the lingering habit if there had not been a very good reason for it.  That reason seems to be that their bodies need this time to use a hefty chunk of that puppy fat to fuel the development of the physiological adaptations they will need for sustained swimming, diving and foraging – it is a sort of pupal stage where a fat, guzzling milksop goes in at one end and a young marine predator, its blood and muscles charged with oxygen-carrying haemoglobin and myoglobin, comes out at the other!

Who are you calling a pupa?!
We’re not being lazy, honest!
Busy metamorphosing into a top marine predator
Myoglobin dreams……

The Grey Seal is a species that is doing very well at present.  Numbers around Britain and Ireland were very low in the early 1900s, possibly even as low as 500 when the Grey Seals (Protection) Act was introduced in 1914.  One hundred years later, the population is estimated to be in the order of 150,000 and still growing.  The biggest breeding colonies were, and still are, in the Orkneys and the Outer Hebrides and for a long time the only breeding colony on the east coast of Britain was the one on the Farnes.  This continued to be the case until 1956 when the first pup was born on the Isle of May, but that colony didn’t really take off until the late 1970s.  Then in the late 1990s they started breeding on the mainland, on the little boulder beaches at the feet of the towering cliffs of the Berwickshire coast centred on Fast Castle Head.  Much more surprising was the establishment in the 1980s of a breeding colony at Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast as this was utterly different habitat – vast open sandy beaches readily accessible from land – and there are now two sandy beach colonies in Norfolk as well, at Blakeney Point and at Horsey.  Tagging and genetic studies have shown that the Farnes is the ultimate source of these new colonies, several of which are now producing more pups that the motherland, Fast Castle being the largest.  While the rate of population growth has slowed around the north and west of Britain, it continues exponentially on the east coast with about 13,000 pups produced in 2014.  With 7 pups born this year, it looks as if Coquet Island, 30km to the south of the Farnes, is becoming the next new breeding colony.

This development of the habit of making use of sandy shores for breeding is an interesting one, not least because it holds the potential for competition with Common Seals (Phoca vitulina) which traditionally have been much more strongly associated with sandbanks and estuaries that have Grey Seals.  Indeed there seems a strong likelihood that the crashes in numbers of Common Seals in the Wash area, caused by outbreaks of Phocine Distemper Disease that first struck in 1988, opened up the way south for the Greys.  Now, it seems, the habit of using sandy beaches for hauling out is spreading back north through the population.

I have to admit to a very soft spot for Common Seals.  They shared the same (rocky) coasts as the otters I was studying so I saw quite a lot of them during my Shetland years.  They have very friendly puppyish faces and are much more playful than their grey cousins, being given to leaping clear of the water, flipper-slapping, snorting and serial porpoising.  They will come a long way into estuaries, right into freshwater, and one fine May morning I watched one fishing upstream of Newcastle just below the tidal limit of the River Tyne at Wylam, some 25km from the sea as the crow flies (and considerably more as the seal swims) looking quite at home in between the lush green river banks, bedecked with Cow Parsley and Dame’s Violet.  Indeed I think the least far-fetched explanation for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is that it is based on whisky-fuelled sightings of a convoy of porpoising Common Seals spotted through Highland drizzle on a murky night.  Although much more numerous than the Grey Seal in global terms, they are less common than Greys in British waters so their home-grown English name is not particularly appropriate.  Far better is their international English name of Harbour Seal, and that is what I will refer to them as hereafter.  In fact I think I will go one step further by adopting our American cousins’ spelling i.e. dropping that superfluo(u)s ‘u’ and referring to them as Harbor Seals.

Anyway, not so long ago (the 1990s), if I wanted to watch Harbor Seals I would head for the tidal island of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island), just up the coast from the Farnes.  At low tide a dozen or two would haul out on the sandbanks which form a sort of Northumbrian mini-Wash between Lindisfarne and the mainland, and splosh and cavort in the channels.  By about 2010 this had become impossible.  Not necessarily because the Harbor Seals are no longer there, but because they have now been swamped by literally hundreds of Grey Seals with their newly acquired sandbank habit.  It would take powerful optics and greater patience than I have to establish whether the Harbor Seals have actually been displaced, or if they are still in there amongst the throngs of Greys.  Now when the wind is in the west the whole of Lindisfarne is pervaded by the singing of the Greys – a delightful experience when you are sitting in the warm sunshine in the sheltered gardens of one of the coffee shops in the village.  Close to, you realise that this wonderfully evocative sound is actually the incessant, cantankerous wailing of seals telling their neighbours to keep their distance (it has been well said that they are gregarious but not sociable), but distance strips away the harsh notes and leaves only the mournful keening to caress the ear and fill the imagination with mermaids and lost souls.  The Greys are also hauling out in their hundreds on the mainland close by, at the northern tip of Ross Back Sands, and it is surely only a matter of time before they start breeding there as well.

To return to the Farnes, the Grey Seal pup production has surged over the last few years, reaching 2,295 in 2016, and a large chunk of that surge has happened on Brownsman (934 pups in 2016).  With the result that the rangers decided they could no longer run the risk of my getting marooned up a ladder by seals, and so this autumn I was restricted to Inner Farne and the issuing of detailed instructions to the Brownsman landing party.  I am pleased to say, though, that I still got my seal pup fix as they are now beginning to use St Cuthbert’s Cove, the little sandy beach next to the jetty on Inner Farne.

One of the pleasures of visiting the Farnes is the opportunity to talk to various scientists about their research there and my visit in late November coincided with one by Bethany Cowan, a marine science student at Newcastle University.  The mortality rate of Grey Seal pups on the Farnes is considerably higher than at most other North Sea colonies, and while the most likely explanation for this is their level of exposure to storms which can wash hundreds of pups away if they hit at the wrong times, there is a nagging concern that some of it could be due to the disturbance caused to the seals by the pup monitoring process.  There are several counts during the course of the pupping season during which any new pups are sprayed with dye to avoid double-counting and to get an estimate of on-site mortality.  This has been the fundamental methodology used since the 1950s so clearly if there has been any adverse effect it has not been significant enough to interfere with the North Sea population explosion.  Nevertheless, it is a potential animal welfare even if not a conservation issue, and allied with concerns about the human health and safety risks of the process, the National Trust had decided to experiment with the use of a drone to count the pups from the air.  Bethany’s study is into how seals respond to this new source of potential disturbance.  Cue the drone man – Tim Askew, a filmmaker specialising in filming with drones.  The Inner Farne bat equipment safely decommissioned I spent a happy couple of hours peering over Tim’s shoulders at a kittiwake’s eye view of the islands and of the seals loafing and diving in the clear waters, and with Bethany watching the behaviour of the seal mothers and pups on the beach.  With the coming and going of boats at the jetty, the seals here seem thoroughly habituated to people so  it was a more relaxed environment for seal-watching than Brownsman and it is a much better place for studying how seals react to one another rather than to humans.  However I have to say that following the adventures of one little pup whose mother had sloped off to cool down in the sea as he flopped his wailing way from one female seal to another in quest of milk was quite harrowing – mother seals do not treat milk-poachers kindly!

Do you think she’ll let me have some too?

As far as I could tell the seals were, at most, just mildly curious about the drone – looking up at this buzzy little flying object above their heads.  This is not really surprising, given that they have to share the islands with thousands of racketing seabirds for several months each year.  It certainly looks to me like this will be a situation where new technology will prove its worth.

Bethany: ‘That one’s been suckling for 8 minutes now’
Tim and drone
Flying drones over the sea requires extra concentration!
Getting a drone’s eye view

As for the Grey Seals’ future, I can’t help but think these may be their salad days.  At present they are the top predator in the North Sea, but it has not always been so.  In other parts of their range they are preyed upon by Killer Whales (Orcinus orca).  Currently these are, at best, only occasional visitors to the North Sea, but surely the burgeoning biomass of Grey Seals is such that the Killers will not continue to overlook this opportunity for ever.  More immediately, I suspect Brexit will pose a threat to them.  Back in the ’60s and ’70s when seal numbers were only a tenth of what they are now, they were perceived as an economic threat by the fishing community and there were several somewhat ineffectual seal culls which foundered in the face of public opinion and scientific uncertainty.  Post-Brexit, if we ‘take back control’ of our seas and British fishermen no longer have foreign fishermen to blame for catches failing to live up to hopes and expectations, then I think we can confidently expect the seals to become the scapegoat of choice once more.


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Special Committee on Seals (SCOS) 2016 report:

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