Farne Islands Winter Work

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Farne Islands

 Grey Seal Pup

Wardens spend the last 3 months of the year immersed within the seal colonies. Since the last visitors land on the islands at the end of September, some might consider that this gives wardens a degree of freedom. However the departure of the last visitor boats coincides with the more extreme seas and as a result the small speedboats belonging to us are limited to small sheltered trips between islands, leaving wardens cut off from the mainland. Wardens rely on larger boats to drop off supplies of, drinking water and gas and utilise every day of flat sea to pick up supplies and grab a quick shower. It is not uncommon that these flat sea days are separated by weeks. Unfortunately these showerless spells overlap with the most intense and physically demanding workload and as a result the seals must cope with smelly wardens.

The grey seal population on the Farne Islands is the longest studied in the world. Wardens enter the colonies, which are mainly spread around the outer group of islands, in order to study population trends and pup survival rate. Every time we enter the colony, we spray the back fins of the newly born seals with a coloured dye, taking note of how many we have sprayed. We then return with a different colour, a few days later, and note how many newborns there are, whilst also counting how many of the first coloured pups are remaining. Since the pups moult their fur prior to entering the sea for the first time, the dye does not affect these animals.

Sounds simple! Seals breed across the outer groups at very high densities with over 1500 pups been born annually. It is necessary to get very close to animals when spraying them in order to ensure only the hind fins are sprayed. Along with the fact that female seals can be very protective of their pups this makes life very tricky for wardens. It is especially important that great care is taken during this work for many reasons. Firstly if you fall or a seal bites you and the weather is bad you’re going to need the help of the RNLI to get you back to mainland. As well as the obvious risks of being bitten by seals (it really hurts), seals carry a form of bacteria in their mouths which can be very harmful to human flesh, causing it to rot. Historically the treatment for seal finger was amputation. It is now much easier to treat but still much better to avoid.


Close Up Picture Of A Bull Seal

Another part of our work which wardens would rather not have to carry out is the removal of marine debris from these incredible animals. With all the animals coming up onto the tops of the islands you start to notice various items caught around the necks of the seals. Such examples are, fishing line which people have cut loose, lobster pots that fishermen have cut lose and marine debris such as the millions of balloons that are released annually ending up in the seas. It is especially important with growing animals (young seals and pregnant cows) that this is removed as soon as possible in order to prevent suffocation and reduce the damage to skin. See below for one unfortunate young seal whom had managed to get caught with a balloon and its associated ribbon around its neck. Fortunately, with the help of the SMRU, we were able to catch this individual remove the balloon and release it successfully but not all these stories have happy endings.

Injured seal which had a balloon caught around its neck
Injured seal which had a balloon caught around its neck
The Balloon and thread which we successfully removed from the seals neck
The Balloon and thread which we successfully removed from the seals neck

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