- The Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk is home to a sizable seal colony
- The first new grey seal pup was spotted at the nature reserve back in 1988
- Each year, more pups are born at the site — with 25 in 2001 up to 3,399 last year
- The seals thrive due to the lack of predators and the site remaining undisturbed
A record 'baby boom' of some 4,000 new pups will join England's largest seal colony this year, the National Trust had predicted.
In fact, the colony at the Blakeney National Nature Reserve in Norfolk has grown to such an extent that the rangers are having to rethink the way they count new pups.
The first grey seal pup was spotted at the nature reserve back in 1988 and since then the breeding ground has become home to a large colony of the marine mammals.
In fact, the rangers counted 3,399 new pups born last year — compared to just 25 additions back in 2001. The first pup of this year was spotted in late October.
However, the sheer number of pups now being born each year at Blakeney Point means that it has become impossible to count the new arrivals precisely.
In the past, rangers and volunteers walked across the spit where the seal lay in order to individually count the new pups — but this approach is now not really safe for either the animals or their human observers.
This year, instead, the Trust will only be counting the number of newborn and older, weaned pips — which can be identified by their size despite their having moulted their white fur — one specific area of the beach.
By repeating this exercise in future years, researchers hope to gain an insight into what is likely happening across the entire colony.
The new approach will also give rangers the chance to look in-depth at the behaviour of the seals at the Blakeney Point site.
'When the seals first started pupping here it was important to count the pups to help us monitor the health of the colony,' said National Trust ranger Leighton Newman.
'More recently, however, the density of the colony has increased hugely and walking through the colony is now not safe for staff or for the seals.'
He added that changing the way things were done recognised the changes to the colony itself — along with the development of techniques available to study it.
Information gathered from the count will be analysed by the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrew’s, in Scotland, to help estimate how grey seals are breeding across the whole of the UK.
There are an estimated 300,000 grey seals globally, with British and Irish waters supporting some 40 per cent of the total population.
The National Trust team is also planning to conduct an aerial count of the seal colony next year with the assistance of the Sea Mammal Research Unit team.
'Counting the colony only provides a fairly basic overview of the seal colony,' said the National Trust's North Norfolk Coast countryside manager, Chris Beilby.
'So we are going to work with the Sea Mammal Research Unit to do more in-depth research to better-understand why Blakeney has become such an important habitat.;
This, he explained, will involve looking at the behaviour of the seals, 'to get a greater understanding of these curious creatures.'
He added that next year’s aerial survey would help draw up an accurate picture of just how large the colony is — and reveal whether it was indeed possible to infer if the colony was increasing in size from an annual count of a single area alone.