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Caring for grey seals on Blakeney Point

Seal pup at Blakeney Point, Norfolk in winter
Seal pup at Blakeney Point, Norfolk | © National Trust Images/Hanne Siebers

With sandy beaches backed by dunes, no natural predators and very little disturbance, Blakeney Point in Norfolk is the perfect place for grey seals to live and give birth to around 4,000 pups each year. They can be seen here all year round, but between late October and mid-January, large numbers congregate to give birth and breed.

England's largest grey seal colony

The first grey seal pup was spotted on Blakeney Point in 1988 with only occasional pups born throughout the 1990s. With five born in 1999, numbers have been increasing every year. In 2014 Blakeney Point became the largest grey seal colony in England and now around 4,000 are born each year.

Why has the population increased so dramatically?

The population increase at Blakeney Point is likely due to the following:

  • They have no natural predators - killer whales, for example.
  • Blakeney Point is a remote location with little disturbance from visitors.
  • There’s a lot of space for them to breed and to spread.
  • Grey seals are often found on rocky shores and pups can get washed away in stormy weather. However, at Blakeney where it is a shallow sloping beach with sand dunes, the seals aren't faced with these risks.
  • Around half of all grey seals born will reach their first birthday with a significant number surviving into adulthood.
  • Seals born at Blakeney Point in previous years are likely to be returning to breed when they reach sexual maturity.
  • There’s plenty of food for them in the North Sea.

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Grey seal pupping season at Blakeney Point

Duncan Halpin, Norfolk Coast Ranger, explains how Blakeney Point has become home to the UK's largest grey seal colony and what to expect during the pupping season, from end-October to mid-January.

Seal pup and mother at Blakeney Point, Norfolk
Seal pup and mother at Blakeney Point | © National Trust Images/Hanne Siebers

Annual seal-pup survey

The grey seal breeding season runs from late October until early January and during this time we try to estimate the size of the colony. With over 4,000 pups born each year, it’s no small task. In the past, we’ve tried to count every single pup born but the colony is now so large – more than 10,000 seals – that it’s impossible to do this accurately on the ground.

How the pups are counted

Previously, the pups were counted individually by rangers and volunteers walking carefully through the colony. However, numbers will now only be recorded in just one specific area.

This change will give an indication of what's happening across the whole site and will give staff the opportunity to look in-depth at the behaviour of the animals, including how long the pups are fed by their mothers.

Working with the Sea Mammal Research Unit

The information gathered during the count will be fed into the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, which estimates grey seal productivity for the whole of the UK.

‘Counting the colony only provides a fairly basic overview so we are going to work with the SMRU to do more in-depth research to better understand why Blakeney has become such an important habitat, and to look at their behaviour to get a greater understanding of these curious creatures.

It will be exciting to get an accurate picture of just how large the colony is and see if by counting just one area we can infer whether or not the colony is increasing in size.’

– Chris Bielby, Countryside Manager, North Norfolk Coast

Rangers monitoring grey seals on the beach at Blakeney National Nature Reserve, Norfolk in winter
Rangers monitoring grey seals on the beach at Blakeney National Nature Reserve | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward

Clearing the beach

After the seals have finished pupping and the pups have weaned and moulted, most of the seals leave Blakeney Point. By mid-February the place is eerily quiet. It’s at this time of year that we undertake the task of removing the pups that sadly didn’t survive. We need to do this to remove a key food source for rats, therefore reducing their numbers. Rats can have a serious impact on the breeding terns, as they also eat eggs and chicks.

It’s also an opportunity for us to access and check parts of Blakeney Point that we can’t get to at any other time of the year because they are occupied by birds or seals.

Visitors watching grey seals from the boat on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Seal facts and spotting guidance

Learn all about seals, from how long they live and what they eat, to how long seal pups take to grow and the threats to their survival, plus see our seal-spotting guidance.

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