Skomer Seals - Past and Present
Every year since 1983 generous contributions by Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales members and seal friends together with funding by NRW have enabled the staff of Skomer Island to conduct a detailed seal study. Seal numbers, pup productivity, survival rates and causes of mortality are recorded every year.
Nowadays the seals around Skomer are doing well and are protected by law from persecution and disturbance but there was a time when this wasn’t the case.
Humans have probably hunted seals for as long as there have been seals to hunt and people to hunt them. There is a long history in northern Britain, particularly the Scottish Islands, of Grey Seal exploitation, mainly for their oil, which was used as fuel for lamps, and their skins for clothing, harnesses and even shoes.
Browne Willis in his ‘Survey of St David’s Cathedral’, written in 1716, described seal hunting in Pembrokeshire:
“And they were hunted out from their caves and on the beaches and killed with sticks by means of a sharp blow on the tip of the nose.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, standards of living improved and the demand for seal products declined. Unfortunately, at some stage people began to regard seals as a threat, a competitor for fish. J.J. Neale on his visit to Skomer in May 1896 writes: "On two or three occasions we saw seals […]. The so-called gentlemen take a delight in shooting them although they know full well that if shot while in the water the bodies at once sink."
In his book about Skomer ‘Cliffs of Freedom’ published in 1961 Roscoe Howells explains: "But at the turn of the century things were different. Only a chance seal was seen. Fishermen shot them when they could.
At the end of the nineteenth century it was believed that only 700 individuals had survived in the whole of the UK (although this was later regarded as an underestimate). Whatever the truth, the British population of grey seals was protected with the ‘1914 Grey Seals Act’ and further more in ‘The Conservation of Seals Act 1970’.
Since the end of persecution the seal population in Britain has been increasing and in 2015 we recorded 240 pups born on Skomer (Figure 1) of which 178 survived till they were weaned.
Figure 1 Seal pups born on Skomer, on the mainland (Marloes Peninsular) and in the Marine Nature reserve as a whole (now called Marine Conservation Zone) in 1883-2015
The 2016 pupping season is well underway and so far we have found seven pups born on Skomer beaches – exciting times for seal fans.