Norfolk seal rescue & release

The night of Thursday 5th December saw the biggest tidal surge to impact upon the east Norfolk coast for over 60 years.  The next day, as the sun rose over a battered landscape, it was clear that there had been devastating consequences not only for the people who lived in the area, but for the animals resident there as well.

The National Trust wardens at Blackeney Point were among the first to realise this, reporting that their two Grey Seal colonies had been totally overcome and dispersed.  This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the seals, as this was the height of their pupping season.  It was estimated that over 250 youngsters had been separated from their mothers and were now, sadly, presumed dead.

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Communication throughout the remainder of that day was patchy and uncertain, but slowly a picture started to emerge.  As RSPCA Inspectors and Animal Collection Officers patrolled the bruised seascape between Great Yarmouth and Cromer, a small number of seal pups were being brought in on the tides.  And some were still alive.  As a wintery sun began to set and the light rapidly fading, seventeen vulnerable pups were rescued and transported to the RSPCA Wildlife Centre at East Winch to receive immediate professional attention.  Most were so young that they were trying to suckle off each other.  Nobody was sure what the next day would bring.

I arrived at East Winch shortly before 8 o’clock.  Outside, the weather was crisp and bright, betraying what had just passed before.  Inside, however, was a completely different story.  On entering the isolation ward, I was hit by a wall of sound as seventeen cute bouncing bundles of white fur were barking as loudly as they could collectively muster.  Were they stressed?  Yes.  Were they disorientated?  Yes.  Were they hungry?  Absolutely!  And now every available RSPCA staff member and volunteer were collectively preparing breakfasts of highly nutritious fish soup.  It was intensive work and I immediately set about documenting the scenes that were going on all around me.

As the morning progressed my attention was turned to the coast, and in particular to Winterton-on-Sea, where RSPCA Inspectors Ben Kirby and Laura Sayer had based themselves.  With the assistance of Natural England and the Ridlington Seal and Bird Rescue Trust, they combed the local shoreline hoping that the sea would be kind.  To the joy of all, the sea was in a tender mood and twenty six more pups were rescued from Winterton that day.  A further seventeen on the Sunday.   All were given over to the protective maternal care being offered by East Winch.  With other front-line RSPCA staff (many of whom had given up their weekends) delivering more pups that had been swept even further afield, the total number rescued came to one hundred and eight. 

East Winch was beyond capacity.  Recuperating swans were moved to an improvised operating theatre.  Sleepy hedgehogs relocated to the education centre.  Every available space was converted to accommodate a seal that was fighting for its very survival.  The staff were now providing intensive veterinary care around the clock.  All looked exhausted.  None were leaving.  Everybody knew that every ounce of effort was needed to keep these seals alive.  It was a weekend that nobody would ever forget.

3 months later…

The gigantic storm surge that swamped the Norfolk coastline on Thursday 5 December, resulted in one hundred and eight orphaned grey seal pups being rescued by RSPCA front-line staff. They were all taken to the RSPCA East Winch Wildlife Centre.

The staff there had been caring for seals for almost 25 years but had never seen anything quite like it before.  They were facing the biggest rescue operation that they had ever dealt with. By the end of the first weekend, they were drawing deeply on their physical and emotional reserves to keep the seals alive.

The first few days were critical as everyone battled to stabilise and strengthen the pups. Feeding times were intense – every four hours, every day.  Staff and volunteers surrendered their evenings, weekends and holidays to support each other and maximise the orphans’ chances of survival.

Festive parties were cancelled. Many staff celebrated Christmas and saw in the New Year with work colleagues and hungry seals. They were driven not only by the goal of getting these adorable creatures back into the wild where they belonged, but by the overwhelmingly positive response of the public.

Incredibly generous contributions (both large and small) in the forms of equipment, money and fish came in from every part of the United Kingdom and even abroad.  Everything was gratefully received as the rehabilitation of over 100 seal pups is no small task.  Clearly, the plight of the seals had touched many peoples’ hearts, and as well as the donations, personal messages of support began pouring into East Winch. There was even a letter from our royal patron Queen Elizabeth II who passed on her warmest good wishes.

All of this was an enormous source of strength for the exhausted staff. As the New Year progressed, a corner was turned. Many of the seals were now taking fish by hand, rather than having to be tube fed. The pups were rapidly putting on weight and growing in strength, so much so that in a small number of cases, the normal rehabilitation period of five months had been completed in three. A select group of eight were ready to go.  All that was stopping them now, was of course, the weather.

Wednesday 26 February saw a congregation of media organisations gathering on the golden sands at Winterton-on-Sea. For the first time in what had seemed like months, the sun was shining and the glistening waters calm. This was the location from where the vulnerable pups were rescued and this was the place that they would now be returned.

At 11.00 am, RSPCA centre manager Alison Charles and her team reached the beach.  With them were Coco Pop, Bran Flake, Cheerio, Marmite, Frostie, Morn Flake, Black Pudding and Sugar Puff. They were all carefully carried in stretchers to the edge of the sea. Everybody stepped back as the seals tentatively bounced over the sand and dived back home.

It was an emotional moment for the East Winch staff.  Months of hard work and dedication had finally been realised as the young seals briefly bobbed around the shore before disappearing to set off on their own journeys.  Eight returned to the sea.  Only another ninety eight to go.


All Imagery and Words - Copyright Joseph Murphy/RSPCA