Rangers at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve in Suffolk are celebrating the birth of over 130 grey seal pups this winter; the third, consecutive year of successful breeding at the coastal site, which is now thought to be home to Suffolk’s first grey seal colony.

Global numbers of grey seals are estimated to be around 300,000 with British and Irish waters supporting around 40 per cent of the world’s grey seal population.

In the wild, female grey seals, known as cows, can live for 30-35 years, whilst males live for about 20-25 years. Cows have their first pups between the ages of three and five and usually return to the same place each year to give birth. 

Matt Wilson, Countryside Manager for the National Trust’s Suffolk and Essex Coast portfolio said:

“The first 200 adult seals arrived at the site in 2021, after an extended period of closure due to the pandemic, when visitor access was significantly reduced. Since then, numbers have increased year-on-year as the colony has established.

“Although grey seals can often be spotted in the waters around Suffolk, we believe this to be the county’s first breeding colony.” 

Matt continued: “Our ranger team have been carrying out weekly seal counts since the beginning of October. In that time, we’ve averaged over 250 adults and have sometimes seen up to 500. 

“Our first two seal pups with their iconic ‘white coats’ were counted on 20 November. Two weeks later, this had increased to over 70 and our most recent count showed 130.” 

Disturbance is one of the biggest threats to grey seals on UK shores and this includes any human activity that can cause them to change their natural behaviour. 

The breeding season for grey seals runs from October to March, which is when Orford Ness is closed to visitors, and as a result any disturbance has been kept to a minimum. 

Grey seal pup © National Trust Images, Hanne Siebers

“Part of the reason we think the colony has established itself here is the remote nature of the site and lack of disturbance, and of course we want that to continue. We also believe it’s a sign of healthy numbers of grey seals along the Eastern coastline, as numbers are likely spilling over from well-populated colonies at Blakeney Point, also cared for by the National Trust, as well as Horsey Gap,” Matt commented. 

“We understand that people will want to see the colony now they know it’s here, but it’s important we continue to limit disturbance, to give the pups the best chance of survival. 

“It’s possible we may be able to offer some form of guided access next winter, to ensure people keep a safe distance from the colony, but for now, we’re asking people to refrain from visiting out of season and to avoid using drones or other aerial equipment in the area. It might seem harmless, but they can actually cause just as much disturbance as if you were approaching on foot.” 

The National Trust team is now working with a number of partner organisations to help support the colony, including the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at St Andrew’s as well as British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and the specialist RSPCA rescue centre at East Winch in Norfolk. 

Orford Ness is a former 20th Century military testing site which has been left to nature. Its abundance of wildlife includes several species of nesting and wading birds, hares, Chinese Water Deer and precious vegetated shingle. 

Glen Pearce, Orford Ness’ Property Operations Manager says: “For decades, people and nature have co-existed on Orford Ness, sharing the space, and now the growing grey seal colony has become part of that story.

“Since the seals’ arrival in 2021, our team of volunteers and staff have monitored the seals from a distance, keeping the growing seal colony a secret. This has helped to keep these vulnerable wild animals protected at a crucial stage of their development. However, the colony has now grown to a size where we want people to share this amazing wildlife success story with our supporters, but also to advise visitors how they can help us protect the colony.

“Unauthorised access, by foot, boat or drone, is illegal and also dangerous because of the unique and remote nature of the former military site. 

“The funds raised from visiting during our opening season – which runs on select days from 29 March to 27 October – will go directly towards our conservation work and looking after nature. Over the next few months, we will be making plans for how we can share this fantastic conservation story with our visitors in the future.”

Main photo: Colony of grey seals on the shingle at the Orford Ness National Nature Reserve in Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Andrew Capell

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