Sue Sayer on the left, with fellow CSG Steering Committee members Kate Hockley, Dan Jarvis ably assisted by Bentley the dog
How it all started
Combine a vibrant personality with an intelligence fuelled by a passion for seals and you have Sue Sayer.
This love affair started in the year 2000 following a visit to a local seal spot, the acquisition of a pair of binoculars and the discovery, when climbing with her partner at Gwennap, that seals come out of the water and so can be fully observed.
With one of life’s synchronicities, Sue then saw an article on seals in a local paper by Stephen Westcott who was hoping to set up a seal group. She was the only respondent, but through Stephen, she learnt that every seal has a unique fur pattern, a fact that meant it would be possible to identify and monitor individuals.
During her now regular coastal visits to observe the seals, Sue started to come into contact with other people also fascinated by these marine mammals. It wasn’t long before she organised a get together at her home, forearmed with aims and objectives, the most important being ‘Having fun whilst learning about seals’.
Informal bi-monthly meetings grew into monthly ones and the Cornwall Seal Group (CSG) came into being.
Cornwall Seal Group
The Group works very closely with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at Gweek. If a seal is seen to be in trouble, BDMLR come out to assess the situation and organise a rescue if required. Between the three groups they have vets experienced in seal medicine, competent seal handlers capable of giving an injured animal first aid treatment and people to record the rescue. The seals are then taken to the Gweek Sanctuary, or if full, to the RSPCA Wildlife Centre at West Hatch in Somerset.
The main remit of the Group is observation and monitoring, working towards conservation. There is not currently an NGO representing seals and the information gathered by CSG effectively enables them to be that voice. Currently they have between 1,200 and 1,500 different seals identified in their catalogue and are able to plot their movements, breeding patterns etc. Although there are some common seals around Cornwall it is the grey seals that the group focuses on.
Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network has become an invaluable link as they pass on records when a seal dies. This information, together with the growing data from the Group, is already giving a more complete picture of the seal community. From last year’s records, for instance, it would seem that some of the males are dying in their prime rather than old age.
Surveying seals from land and boat
As well as their own dedicated volunteers, CSG has links with other organisations to set up seal surveys. These started with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Looe VMCA (Voluntary Marine Conservation Area) in 2008 and have now spread to Polzeath and St Agnes VMCA with the help of BDMLR. Cornwall College also funds boat surveys, so now the whole of the north coast is covered. It is hoped over the next two to three years the data set will have been expanded to include all the Grey seal habitats around the Celtic Sea. An example of just what can be achieved when public, private and voluntary organisations come together.
Boat surveys are vital, not only for observing seals in the water but also checking there are no seal sites between those currently being observed from the land. Sue monitors sites twice weekly and as seals usually stay for several days, it’s unlikely many go undetected.
Consulting on projects that could detrimentally affect seals
As the body of information grows, so do the number of consultations the Group is becoming involved with. There is now a monthly Steering Group that meets to discuss the myriad number of applications that may impact on the seals’ welfare. Currently CSG are responding to at least one a month, a huge amount of paperwork and often emotionally distressing content.
The wind farm project, The Atlantic Array proposed for the Bristol Channel was one such proposal where the group were able to contribute seal data. The objective is not to hinder ‘progress’, but to ensure the seals’ needs are taken into consideration.
Another project is marine mineral mining in the seabed 200m offshore from St Ives Bay to Perranporth. An Environmental Impact Assessment has just been completed and submitted to the MMO (Marine Management Organisation). So far there have been 40 sample sites investigated as part of the license application. CSG was consulted and submitted their data, information that would have not been available prior to the group’s formation.
Damage caused to seals from marine debris
Sadly the group encounters a large number of net entangled seals. The vast majority caught in storm damaged or discarded nets which float around at the surface. Naturally inquisitive seals swim in, around and through, getting caught mostly around their necks and sometimes their bellies. The worst recorded case off the case of Holland was of a seal with 11kg of trawl net attached to it. Fortunately it was rescued.
(Seal caught in debris)
The issue of marine debris is a huge one as most of us are aware. In December 2012 the CSG were invited to attend the Marine Debris symposium held by WSPA (World Society for Protection of Animals). Representatives from six continents with first hand experience of the issues attended. The objective was to identify solutions that would be quick and easy to implement to run alongside longer term strategies. CSG’s net entanglement research paper was published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin in December 2012.
In twelve years Sue has led Cornwall Seal Group from a group of seal lovers observing seals, into a group with links to other organisations that rescue and rehabilitate seals and, thanks to the data they are continuing to collect, giving the grey seals around the Cornish coast a voice.
There are 330,000 grey seals globally and over 500,000 African elephants. In Sue’s words, how can we expect other countries to protect their own iconic rare species if we are not prepared to protect our grey seals.
It is now known from the bones found on the Scilly Isles that common and grey seals have been in this part of the UK since at least 1500BC. Through the work of CSG, hopefully they will be around for a lot longer.
To find out more:
Sue is always glad to hear from people who would like to monitor seals in their local area and can advise on best times to see them etc. Email Sue on firstname.lastname@example.org or attend one of their monthly meetings at The Inn for All Seasons, Redruth, on the first Wednesday on the month. The meetings start at 7.30–10.00pm. Or join the group from 6.30pm if you would like to order food there.
Sue’s excellent book published in 2012
For reviews, please see http://www.alisonhodgepublishers.co.uk/?page_id=2868 (base of page) and on Amazon.
Other ways you can help seals and other sea-life:
Most of us living in Cornwall are regular visitors to the beautiful beaches. There is an increasing amount of debris, mostly plastic being washed up on our shores. For seals the plastic rings from packs of lager etc and other looped items are particularly dangerous as they can easily get entangled, which can result in horrendous injuries and even drowning. Taking a bag and removing some of this debris is a great way to help all marine life and ultimately ourselves, as plastic is increasingly entering the food chain. It is also very satisfying!