Shooting grey seals out of season

There’s been some astonishing wild nature about in late summer this year. A good year for bright, plump berries - everywhere has blackberries, melting between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Local woodlands bear hazel nuts, rowan berries and rosehips, and are packed full of fantastical fungi of all sizes, shapes and colours - red and speckled, browns, white, mauve, mounded, flat, and phallic.

A second pilgrimage to the Pembrokeshire coastal headlands this year gave us more delightful wild nature - parasol mushrooms, up and opening after a night-time’s rain. On the wind, kestrels, buzzard, gulls, cormorants, oyster catchers, choughs, gannets, butterflies, and dragon files. Flowers of western gorse, heather, golden rod, scabious and orpine adorn the cliff-tops and pathsides – a flush of late colour and nectar. A dolphin arched through the water, occasionally jumping high with exuberance. Was that really a ray we saw, breaking the surface and confusing us with its size and wings?

We joined with others in making the annual late season excursion to Marloes to witness new life being born. Expectant grey seals, reclining on stony beaches above the high water mark, safe with the high cliffs behind them, cutely curling and entwining their flipper feet, waiting for their pups to emerge. The pups, at first ragged hand puppets of creamy white fur, become mewling attention seekers after a few suckles from their mothers.

This coastline is magical at any time of year. It combines a geological splendour in its coastal cliffs and craggy beaches with the mostly unrestrained cliff vegetation of crevice, maritime grassland, heath and scrub, all shaped by an Atlantic influence of ocean salt, water and wind. If you are birdist, then your first visit here would have been to visit the islands of Ramsey or Skomer, rich breeding grounds for sea birds. But you should come back and drink in its wider nature of fabulous ferns in the dampness of the broadleaf coastal woodlands, the dunes of the southern coast, and the spectacular natural cliff gardens of coastal wildflowers in spring.

I have often noted that our coasts have some of the least affected wild habitats that are generally accessible to us. The area between low and high water mark retains the childlike allure of rock pools, crustacea and seaweeds. The sand dunes, salt marshes and inaccessible cliffs have little or no use in agriculture, but exhibit some of our best wildflower displays.

Protecting the coast and sea

In the Pembrokeshire Coast, we have this wonderful synthesis, given access by the long distance path that traces most of the coastline, and encompassed by National Park status (IUCN Category V) that provides the resources to maintain the path and which gives an identity that incentivises most of the landowners to respect this natural heritage. The latter is important since there may only be a few meters in width - between the cliff edge and the farm field boundary – to hold the path and this unfettered habitat.

Unsurprisingly, the National Trust owns large chunks of the Pembrokeshire coastline, and their stewardship allows that they don’t have to sweat every hectare for income when the value of its wild nature is reward enough. This gives rise to the more broad expanses of semi-natural habitat beside the coast path, such as the headlands of St Davids and the Marloes deer park that are lightly managed with welsh mountain ponies, and Trehill farm where fences have come down and farmland bordering the coastal path is being regenerated to restore coastal heath (1).

A national park, coastal or otherwise, is primarily a designation for farmed land, and so the majority of the Pembrokeshire Coast receives an additional and more specific designation of Heritage Coast (IUCN Category V). As with national park status, this carries no legal protection but, like national parks, planning authorities must take the heritage coast designation into account before approving development that could spoil the coastline, such as caravan sites and other inappropriate developments. In addition, local authorities take some responsibility for heritage coast, drawing up management plans that are implemented by Heritage Coast Officers in voluntary agreement with landowners.

This gets us some way to understanding how the natural heritage of the terrestrial coast is maintained, but what about the sea life off the Pembrokeshire Coast? The Marloes Peninsula, where we saw grey seals pupping, is encompassed in one of only three Marine Nature Reserves in Britain (MNR, IUCN Category IV). It is part of the Skomer MNR that covers 1,318 hectares of open sea between the mainland and out around Skomer Island. As is recognised for all marine reserves, they are but part of a larger body of water in which sea animals and plants live, and through which the animals move freely. Thus a measure of protection is given within this reserve area through voluntary codes of practice and other agreements negotiated with fishermen, anglers, leisure interests, and the oil industry of nearby Milford Haven.

Perhaps the most potent effect of the MNR designation is the profile it gives to that particular area of the marine environment, the consequent close study of its inherent species a benchmark for the wider marine area, and its use as a monitoring site for changes in the health of the sea generally. Protection thus comes from the inhibitions that should be felt in threatening this recognised and valued natural marine heritage.

Not so for the star turn idiot on the jet ski off Little Haven (outside of the MNR) who buzzed the dolphin as it fished and frolicked. He hadn’t read the Pembrokeshire Marine Code that advises that he should avoid approaching marine wildlife at sea and, where possible, remain at a distance of at least 100m away from marine wildlife, staying for no longer than 15 mins (2).

The Code is a recent voluntary initiative amongst the tourist operators and marine users of the whole of the Pembrokeshire Coast, in association with the National Park Authority and the National Trust. It represents some smart self-interest amongst its members because maintaining the natural heritage of the coast is key to the long term future of their businesses and interests. Members make a commitment to good practice, and can receive training to achieve their objectives of engaging all of the Marine users of Pembrokeshire, and promoting the voluntary codes of conduct for different species and activities in relation to the different sensitivities of the various areas of the coastline.

A map is given with the code that shows areas sensitive to disturbance at different times, or throughout the whole of the year. The coasts of Marloes Peninsula and Skomer Island, where many grey seals give birth, are regarded as highly sensitive, requiring particular care at all times. The Code is thus good news for the seals that we saw there, and must also be so for elsewhere along the Pembrokeshire Coast, especially so now that the grey seal population is identified for conservation within the recently designated Pembrokeshire Marine Special Area of Conservation that covers the whole of the Pembrokeshire Coast marine environment (SAC – probably IUCN Category V)(see 3 for the SAC details and a map for the Pembrokeshire Coast showing the main pupping sites and the main distribution of adult seals outside pupping season).

Killing grey seals

On the very same day that we were counting seals and pups at Marloes, a fatherless son in the Western Isles shot in the head four pregnant grey seals and a pup, their bodies found a day later on the rocky beach at the Point of Vastray on the Orkney mainland (4). Some people in the Orkneys seem to have got it in for grey seals, as ten pregnant females were found shot dead out of season two years ago on the shoreline at Burwick Ferry on South Ronaldsay after a tip-off to the police (5). In the worst massacre, 26 dead seal pups were found in the mid-1990s on the shoreline of South Ronaldsay (6).

We have not reached the stage yet where some 300,000 harp seal pups are clubbed to death in an annual cull sanctioned by the Canadian Government. But our laws do allow culling of grey seals without the need to notify any authority of the action or numbers. The Conservation of Seals Act 1970 allows shooters with high velocity rifles to apply for an endorsement to their firearms certificate that allows them to shoot seals for most of the year. The Act only limits shooting of seals during their breeding and moulting periods (1 September – 31 December for grey seals) (8). But in a ghastly concession in the Act, shooting is still permitted at any time by any fisherman using the ‘netsman’s defence’ that it was to prevent a seal from causing damage to a fishing net or fishing tackle, or for any fish inside the netting of a fish farm (7), provided that the seal was in the vicinity of the net or tackle or fish farm. Neither actual proof of damage - or that the damage would be serious - is required by the shooter, and ‘vicinity’ is not defined (8).

Fishermen kill seals because they compete with them for dwindling fish stocks - we’ve heard this argument before, most recently with the culling of cormorants. Except that it is estimated that the total amount of cod and other fish consumed by grey seals in the North Sea is less than one-tenth of that caught by commercial fisheries and that over fishing is to blame for falling stocks. Moreover, seals are but one of a range of predators for cod, and fish eat other fish, and so it is uncertain what effect culling seals would have on the overall marine ecology (see 9 for population figures and distribution).

Our laws protect dolphins, porpoises, whales, basking sharks, turtles and marine wild birds from being killed or injured. After this recent atrocity, there are many who call for better protection to be given to grey seals, including IFAW, Animal Advocates, SSPCA, and the Seal Conservation Society (4). We should not take this lightly. The extent of grey seal culling is likely to be on the increase, and while estimates suggest that there are up to 3500-5000 seals killed in British waters each year, it can only be an estimate as many seal carcasses just sink without trace (6, 8).

Even if we fail in giving grey seals the greater protection in law that they deserve, we must be more serious about regulating the activity that is permissible in areas that we designate because of their natural heritage. The various layers of designation that cover the Pembrokeshire Coast exhibit a genuine and remarkably coherent approach to safeguarding its natural heritage – both marine and terrestrial - but they are all dependent on voluntary local agreement. Laws provide penalties, but more importantly they also set boundaries for what are unacceptable activities. The more successful protected area systems in the world adopt that approach, and so should we. A national Marine Nature Reserve, such as the Skomer MNR, should have that level of protection. Then I would never have to fear that the grey seals and pups I see at Marloes are ever in danger from us.

Mark Fisher, 23 September 2006

(1) Addition of sulphur to agricultural fields to restore heathland, Trehill Farm, Pembrokeshire, Wales - Case Study 168

(2) Pembrokeshire Marine Code

(3) Pembrokeshire Marine Special Area of Conservation

(4) Orkney seal slaughter provokes call for improved legislation to protect seals

(5) Probe into Orkney seal shootings

(6) Shooting of pregnant seals sparks outrage,,2-2366232.html

(7) Seal killing concern at fish farm

(8) The facts about seals

(9) British waters are home to 100,000 - 120,000 grey or Atlantic seals, which is about half the world population. The majority are found around the coasts of the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands in Scotland, but some 5000 grey seals live around the west Wales coast. Over 200 grey seal pups are born every year in the Skomer MNR, with survival rates approaching 90%, the highest in the UK.