Atlantic grey seals are very much a part of the dramatis personae of the teeming wildlife theatre that exists off the west coast of Pembrokeshire.
Although they are by far the largest residents, they are relatively few in terms of the cast of thousands, if not millions, that play out their lives on and around the beautiful sanctuary islands of Skomer, Skokholm, Ramsey and Caldey in far West Wales.
The visitor does not have to go to an island to see the seals, for they inhabit almost every cove and beach along the entire 180-mile length of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Coastal Footpath from Amroth in the south to Poppit Sands in the north.
It is always a delight to see their heads protruding from the surface of the water, taking a curious interest in the human beings watching them from above, or to see tham basking in the summer sun on a shelf of rock. To hear their eerie wailing ‘song’ wafting out of a breeding cove in autumn is also an experience not to be missed, and, when several sing together they harmonise as if testifying to the myth that even the Welsh fauna can sing in tune.
The Atlantic Grey Seal is a large mammal, the bulls reaching eight to eleven feet long and weighing between 370 and 680-lbs, the cows up to six feet six long and weighing between 20 and 420-lbs. The bulls and cows are easily distinguishable even if only their head is above water, for the cows have sleek, feminine faces as appealing as Jersey cows while the bulls’ heads are square and bulky, battered and scarred from their many fights in protection of their territory. They resemble punch-drunk bruisers of the boxing ring. They constantly patrol and defend their territories, whch can consist of one breeding cove or cave or an entire stretch of coast where their harem can produce their pups. Their biggest colony in Pembrokeshire is Ramsey Island, off St Davids Head, where the northern and western cliffs are high and sheer and the breeding beaches and caves inaccessible except from the sea. The Pembrokeshire seals have a longer breeding season than their Scottish cousins, no doubt due to the fact that the Scottish coast has large beaches while the Pembrokeshire breeding beaches are fewer and smaller. The British breeding season stretches from early July to December, and the pups are born in September to November, emerging as small creatures with a dense, soft, silky white fur. But they are not small for long, as their mother’s milk is so rich that they rapidly fatten into rotund fur-barrels, which, within a month, shed their puppy fur which is replaced by dense adult fur. They then leave for the sea to learn to fish. The British population numbers over 150,000. Why young seals are called pups not calves is a mystery while the seal’s alternative names include horsehead and hook-nosed sea-pig,