On the face of it, December doesn’t seem the most promising time of year for wildlife spotting. As much of the natural world curls up on itself for the cold months ahead it’s easy to assume that all its inhabitants do likewise. Probably this isn’t helped by the fact that we also tend to spend less time outside during the winter (high street shopping doesn’t count) and so don’t have as many interactions with wildlife as we might during the rest of the year.
If you know where to look though, December can offer some fantastic wildlife spotting opportunities. There is little vegetation meaning it is easier to spot birds and animals and for some species such as migrating birds, winter sees a massive peak in activity.
Norfolk’s Winter Birds
Nowhere is this more true than in Norfolk – our destination on a recent December weekend getaway with the girls. The county is famed for its bird friendly environment, with everything from tempting open arable fields and woodland to acres of pristine wetlands, salt marsh and mudflats on offer in the county for its winged residents. Raptors, geese, reed dwellers, owls and a whole plethora of feathered creatures call Norfolk home, even if only for a few weeks each year and winter is the best time to see rarer migratory visitors. Bird watchers flock to the county every year and for many years Pensthorpe Nature Reserve in Norfolk was the home of popular BBC series Springwatch.
Sadly for us, our winter visit to Norfolk’s north coast was incredibly blustery and the birds were sheltered safely away. Other than the odd passing goose and some garden birds we didn’t get much in the way of bird sightings and dusk was upon us before we could get to explore the relatively more sheltered reed beds of Hickling Broad Nature Reserve just in land from Horsey. I’d have liked to spend more time exploring this wonderful bird-land and was also sad not to have time to explore the board walks at Hawk & Owl Trust run Sculthorpe Moor Reserve near Fakenham. Next time.
The Grey Seals of Norfolk
We did get to experience one of Norfolk’s other very active winter residents though – the grey seals. Both common and grey seals flock to Norfolk’s coast every year. The shallow waters and gentle beaches make a perfect nursery for seal pups with their chances of survival into adulthood boosted by the comparatively temperate conditions. As a result, Norfolk is home to some of the largest seal colonies in the UK with the colony of grey and common seals at Blakeney Point now the largest in England.
It is possible to see seals all year round in Norfolk, with the common seals having their pups between June and August. From November to February though the female grey seals (cows) come ashore to give birth to their young in huge numbers. The timing coincided perfectly with our winter weekend in Norfolk at the start of December.
As the seal cows come ashore to have their pups, the male seals (bulls) will patrol the shoreline, fighting for the best territory close to a hareem of cows. After a mere three weeks, the mother seals leave their pups to fend for themselves and slip back to sea with mating taking place around the same time. Seal cows are pregnant for around 11 months of the year as a result although because of delayed implantation of the embryo (around just over 3 months delay) they always give birth at the same time each year.
As for the grey seal pups? Well they drink their mother’s milk exclusively for the first three weeks of their lives. The milk is rich in fat – around 60% fat in fact and the pups put on weight rapidly – up to 2kg a day! They need these reserves for when their mothers head back to sea without them and they are left to fend for themselves. Once they have moulted from their fluffy white and entirely useless in water fur, they will gain the more familiar grey waterproof coat that is needed to survive off-land. They must learn to hunt for fish and eels by themselves, with only their hunger to guide them. It’s a tough life for these babies!
We had a wonderful time watching the grey seals whilst in Norfolk. As one of the UK’s largest mammals seeing the grey seals in large numbers with their pups is definitely a highlight of this country’s wild calendar. It’s a fantastic experience for children no matter how ‘outdoorsy’ or not they may be. Even our two year old was completely taken in by the grey seals although she insisted on calling them ‘doggies’ – perhaps it was all the barking they were doing?! Roo at 4 years old enjoyed watching them play, nurse and even scrap. She was fascinated by them. Nor was she alone – children, teenagers and adults of all ages were gathered quietly in groups along the dune tops watching in awe. I didn’t see a single moaning or reluctant child whilst out – nobody it seems is immune to the enchanting antics of the grey seals and I’m not surprised.
Where to see grey seals & their pups
In Norfolk there are several places to get fantastic views of the grey seals and their pups in winter. One of the most popular options is to take a boat from Morston with trips offered by Beans Boats to visit the colony of grey seals at Blakeney by sea. The boats run all year round, last around an hour and are suitable for children although as they are open it is advisable to wear appropriate clothing, particularly in the winter. I’d also advise buying your tickets and booking a specific trip a good way in advance – we were advised to book a day or two beforehand but were lucky to get a space on a Sunday in early December – all the other trips that weekend were already full several days in advance.
Sadly the wind was too strong the weekend we visited and our boat trip was cancelled. Whilst it is technically possible to visit the seals at Blakeney on foot, you need to be very careful not to get caught out near the flat with the tides and it’s really important not to disturb the seals for both their well-being and yours. Luckily there are much safer and accessible places to observe the grey seals, even when the weather is bad.
We headed over to Horsey on the east coast instead, where roped off walkways on the back of the dunes give wonderful views down to the seals and their pups on the beach below. The seals seem to stretch on forever and the gentle dunes and close proximity to the seals make it a superb spot for very young children to enjoy a seal encounter.
The last time we saw seals and their pups was in Pembrokeshire where we had to peer very carefully over the edge of vertiginous cliffs, clinging carefully onto Roo and Beth all the while. Our close up views were via a long zoom lens and whilst still special, it was not a very relaxed way as a family to watch such a wonderful natural spectacle. Horsey was a different story although its accessibility does mean you have plenty of company from other visitors.
Luckily, none of this seems to phase the seals and a team of volunteer wardens are visibly on hand to keep an eye on their well-being and answer visitors’ questions. Personally having company out watching seals on a blustery winter day did not bother me, despite my normal preference for spots far from the madding crowd! If only everyone wanted to go and see grey seal pups on a blustery December day instead of queueing up to get into Ikea or spending money they don’t have in the shopping malls! It would bring its own set of conservation challenges for sure but what a wonderful world that would be.
For video footage of the Horsey grey seals and some narration by yours truly, take a look at the YouTube video below. I’d love your feedback on which format you prefer (or both). Vlogging is fairly new to me!