In the teeth of an autumn gale, new lives are beginning. Sand-blasted and doused with spray, grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) are gathering on traditional beaches to give birth.
Nearly half of the world’s grey seals live around our coasts and a visit to a pupping beach is an unforgettable experience. For the pups it’s a rude entry into the world, but they are well-protected by a thick layer of insulating blubber and a creamy fur coat known as lanugo.
They’re around 14kg when they’re born but grow quickly, boosted by their mother’s milk, which is up to 60% fat. In just over two weeks they can triple their weight.
A natal colony is a noisy place, loud with bawling pups calling for their mothers or the retching sounds used to repel rivals and humans. A young seal may look cute, but can deliver a serious wound with its sharp teeth, so should not be approached.
After two to three weeks the mother stops suckling her baby, which then sheds its silky coat. As winter approaches, it will head out to sea to fend for itself.
Where to see grey seal pups
• Treshnish Islands, off Mull, Argyll
• Tentsmuir NNR, east of Tayport, Fife
• Donna Nook, Lincolnshire
• Blakeney Point, Norfolk
• Skomer Island, West Wales
See Skomer grey seals birthing on Countryfile at 18:20hrs on BBC One, Sunday 19 October 2014.
Illustration: Rose Sanderson