Ten facts about the Farne Islands' seals

The Farne Islands are home to thousands of grey seals (also known as Atlantic seals), and each autumn hundreds of pups are born here. Here are ten facts about seals on the Farnes from one of the head rangers.

1. Seal counts

The Farnes has the longest history of counting the seals of any colony. The work was started by the Natural History Society of Northumbria in 1952 (counts had been undertaken long before this but were only on certain islands). The Trust took over counting in 1970 and continues to this day. 1,575 pups were born in 2013 – this equates to a colony size of 5,500 based on multiplying the number of pups born by 3.5.

2. Seals in numbers

Male seals grow up to 2 metres in length and weigh 230kg. Their lifespan is 20-25 years. Female seals grow up to 180cm in length, weigh 150kg, and have a lifespan of 30-35 years. Grey seals feed on wide variety of fish, squid, and octopus. They spend 80% of time below water, 20% on the surface breathing. Seal usually stay underwater for between 4 and 8 minutes at a time, although the maximum time recorded was 30 minutes. Seals can reach depths of 30 metres.

3. Counting the pups

Given the right weather conditions, the seals are visited every four days and new pups marked on the rump with a harmless vegetable dye. Using a rotation of three or four colours we can work out how many pups are born, how many die, and how many ‘disappear’ before they would be able to survive. This gives us the number born annually and allows us to calculate the mortality rate.

This seal has a yellow paint on its fur, showing it has been counted
A seal with her pup on the Farne Islands

4. Storms

Rough weather can be devastating for seals, particularly those from the north which can strip pups from some of the low-lying islands causing mass deaths. However, as seals move back onto Staple and Brownsman to pup – islands less prone to wave-wash - we are seeing a reduction in storm-related losses.

5. Twins

What might be a ‘world first’- grey seal twins - was reported from Brownsman island on 23 October 2012. All the photographs looked good: only one cow (mother) was ever seen in attendance. The Sea Mammals Research unit was heavily involved: DNA samples were taken and whilst close, they were not 100% conclusive. Everyone on the Islands was convinced they were twins – but the scientific evidence does not fully back this up. With more DNA samples it might have been possible to prove but unfortunately we can't!

6. The first few weeks

It's tough being a seal pup. 30% of pups die within a month and 50% within their first year. Pups are weaned in 18 days, in which time they will have quadrupled in weight. Abandoned by their mother, they spend another 20 days or so on the colony before heading out to sea for an independent life.

Hundreds of seal pups are born on the Farnes each year
A seal pup on the Farne Islands

7. Tracking

The first experiment in tracking seals was on 16 December 1951 when ten pups were fitted with metal cattle tags. One was found alive at Jaeren, 20 miles away from Stavanger, Norway on 30 December. The pup travelled 400 miles in a maximum of 14 days. This was the first clue that seals moved across the North Sea.

Things have since moved on. The Sea Mammals Research Unit fit pups with a type of mobile phone, each with its own sim card and number. The phones collect data every two days and some also have GPS tags to give their position hourly. Whenever in range of a mobile phone transmitter, the data is send and downloaded. Farnes seals are regularly recorded on the Dutch, German, and Norwegian coasts.

8. Monks and seals

From the 12th century onwards, the seals were ‘exploited’ by the Islands' monks. They were valued because of the oil that could be extracted from their carcasses and also as a luxury food. As creatures of the sea, seals counted as ‘fish’ and so could be eaten on a Friday. In 1378-79 a seal calf could fetch about 22p which works out at about £140 in today’s money. From documents through to the 1500s there was quite a trade in seals and seal products.

9. The Farnes and other colonies

The Farnes' is the third largest colony on the east coast of England. Donna Nook in Lincolnshire and Blakeney Point in Norfolk are just ahead of the Farnes at the moment. 2.5% of the annual British pup production is from the Farnes, compared to 20% from the Monach Islands in the Outer Hebrides – the largest British colony.

The seal Rookery on Blakeney Point
hundreds of seals and their pups lying on the beach on Blakeney Point

10. Other seal species

Very small numbers of common seals (also known as harbour seals) can be found on Holy Island, with small numbers around Teesside, then larger colonies around the Wash. They are very rare on the Farnes with an average of 1 recorded per year.