Call to ban dogs from beach during seal breeding season
- Credit: James Bass © 2015
A leading academic and broadcaster has called for a ban on dogs during the seal breeding season following a series of attacks and deaths due to “human intervention”.
Ben Garrod, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said a by-law should be introduced to protect the colony at Horsey and Winterton where the "obnoxious and disgusting" behaviour of a handful of visitors has lead to at least three pups losing their lives.
At the weekend Friends of Horsey Seals, the volunteer organisation which monitors the colony, told how a seal pup had drowned after being chased into the waves, despite the intervention of a warden who faced abuse.Meanwhile a crowd of wildlife-watchers reportedly prevented a mother from reaching her pup, which also later died.
The incidents have prompted an angry response on social media.
Mr Garrod said: "This is not about a lack of education or a lack of awareness. There are enough people on the beach telling you what to do.
"There is a small minority of idiots who are ignorant and putting the lives of our most iconic animals at risk, in fact killing them.
"This is illegal. It's not like you are upsetting a pigeon on Yarmouth Market Place. If you disturb, harass, or kill a seal it is as illegal as nicking a car or stealing from a shop.
"There are fines and punishments and it is something I am taking up with the police.
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"Most people would not kick a seal or punch a baby squirrel but they chased that seal into the water where it would have become hypothermic and drowned."
He said the beach could easily be closed to dogs while the seals were breeding, as Yarmouth's beaches were in the summer.
And he called for a "more joined-up approach" with the landowner, police, and conservation bodies supporting the Friends group, all unpaid volunteers who faced abuse when challenging the public on their behaviour.
Peter Ansell, chairman of the Friends group, said many of those on patrol were older women and the advice was not to confront those intent on flouting guidance.
Generally the group received nothing but positive feedback. But since the seal deaths there had been criticism the Friends had not done enough, with one person writing: "Where were you?"
He said it was upsetting, given their diligent patrols carried out in all weathers on limited resources.
Two seals put down as hospital full
The issue of "human intervention" is not just limited to ignorant visitors behaving badly on the beach.
As well as claims people have sat their children on seals for the ultimate picture or posed close up for a selfie, plastic litter has been a huge problem.
At the weekend while rescuing a trio of seals on the beach, one was spotted in the sea entangled with plastic netting and "in a hell of state," Peter Ansell, chairman of the Friends of Horsey Seals said.
Heartbreakingly of the three that were picked up there was only space for one in local wildlife hospitals which are all full.
It meant the other two pups had to be put down.
While it was possible they had been abandoned because of people on the beach getting too close there were other reasons like a challenge from a bull. In a colony that size there would always been casualties at the hands of Mother Nature too, he added.
Horsey a huge success story
The colony at Horsey is a huge success story.
Some 16 years ago around 60 would be born in any one season - enough to warrant a small viewing platform.
These days an army of 250 volunteers keeps a close eye on the growing colony, one of Norfolk's most magnificent wildlife spectacles.
Mr Ansell said double that number was needed to properly warden the seals with the pup population already passing the 2,000 mark this year.
He said visitor numbers had grown in line with the colony, around 100,000 braving the winter chill to see the seals last winter - an annual outing that had become a festive tradition for many families looking for fresh air and exercise over Christmas.
He added he liked to think the colony's success was due to some degree to the efforts of The Friends who worked in shifts educating the public, monitoring the pups, and giving advice.
Why not bring in a ban at Winterton?
A voluntary beach ban has been in place during the breeding season at Horsey for around a decade.
The wardens simply rope-off the area and visitors are invited to view the seals from vantage points in the dunes, which has worked well with most people respecting the measure for the sake of the seals.
With pups on the beach for six weeks, three with their mother and three without, it is vital disturbance is kept to a minimum.
Conservationists are keen to point out that people could come off worse during any attempted interaction with a seal as it could charge or bite.
At Winterton the natural geography of the dunes makes the beach harder to rope off, with seals straying onto pathways and monopolising the beach and public areas for the first time.
If the colony carries on growing at the same rate it is likely it will reach Hemsby and Scratby and that problems related to disturbance will increase.