Seals are some of the largest and most entrancing mammals to see around the UK coastline. The two main types are the Atlantic grey seal and the smaller harbour or common seal. Favoured locations include the west coast of Wales, northeast England and much of the coast of Scotland, including the Firth of Forth, Western Isles and Ythan Estuary near Aberdeen. There are also populations at the Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve at South Walney in Cumbria and in the Dee Estuary between Wales and the Wirral.
Grey seals are the more common and adult males can grow to more than two metres and weigh more than two hundred kilograms. Their diet includes cod and sand eels although they eat most types of fish and crustaceans, including squid and octopus, swimming many kilometres in search of prey.
Sometimes this leads them into trouble; for example in northwest England seal pups are occasionally sighted in Warrington, about twenty miles from the coast, and in 2014 one was even rescued from a farmer’s field near Newton-le-Willows, having swum up the Mersey Estuary and then into one of its tributaries.
However, most sightings are at the coast, and perhaps the best opportunities in England are at the Donna Nook National Nature Reserve in Lincolnshire. Whilst at most locations, seals are only visible in the distance, and launch into the water at the slightest disturbance, here some even approach the fenced off path used by spectators.
This spectacle occurs during the main breeding season from October to mid-December and at other times the seals disperse along the coast. This can also be the best viewing time at other locations although it is important to check on local factors; for example most of the population in the Dee Estuary swims off to Wales in those months as the stony beaches there are more suitable for raising pups.
Wherever you go, though, be careful not to approach seals too closely, as that may disrupt their breeding chances, and due to their size they are potentially dangerous when startled. In particular keep dogs and children well clear!