Winter can mean an influx of seal pups into our wildlife centres, which can make it a very busy time of year. Helping a motherless seal pup successfully graduate from helpless youngster to young adult ready for release is no mean feat – especially as seals can be fussy eaters, with tricky care requirements and quite dangerous bites!
Our Wildlife Information Officer Llewelyn Lowen talks us through the work that goes into rehabilitating an orphaned seal once they’ve been rescued.
Displaced grey seals
Grey seals are found on exposed coasts and islands off north and west Scotland, west Wales, south west England, Isle of May and the Farne Islands, and in the Wash. Although generally unsociable, they haul out (temporarily leave the water) in large colonies, on secluded areas such as undisturbed rocky beaches, islands and caves.
A major problem we see every year, particularly around the Norfolk coast between November and January, are storm-blown grey seal pups. The extreme weather which is common to this season can wash young seals off of their pupping beach, often carrying them large distances down the coast – too far away for their mums to find them when they return to feed them.
White coated grey seal pups are born during the winter months and are nursed intermittently on the beach by their mums. They moult their white coat at three to four weeks, then take to sea to find their own food.
What do we feed the seal pups?
Seal milk is a rich fatty milk (over 50% fat content) so it’s difficult to replace, but we make a fish soup of liquidised fish and oral rehydration solution. When looking to feed seal pups, we can use our normal herring based fish soup or a mackerel based fish soup, which has been shown to greatly improve weight gain in emaciated pups.
These pups can be on feeds of fish soup every three hours in the isolation unit, so you can see how busy things can get when we start taking in large numbers.
When they’re old enough, the fish soup is replaced with whole fish and is either hand fed or left for them to eat (to encourage natural feeding behaviours).
Seal pups are moved through the hospital as they improve medically and begin to eat on their own. Different pups progress at different rates, and it’s important that each individual is monitored to ensure their treatment and rehabilitation is tailored appropriately to their needs.
Where are the seal pups housed?
After their initial assessment, all pups start their journey in our isolation unit, a controlled indoor environment for observation and cleaning.
During this stage the seal can be moved to another cubicle which can be filled with water. This allows for progression and provides the seal with the opportunity to be fed in water, as well as an opportunity to float in the water.
Once they ‘re through the isolation phase, they progress to an intermediate pool with another seal for company. The water in these pools is deeper than in the isolation cubicle, with a space where they can haul themselves out of the water, such as a floating mat. As food does not arrive at regular times in the wild, feeding times for the pups will also start to vary at this stage.
How do we get the pups ready for release?
Only when the pups weight is steadily increasing and they’re no longer on veterinary supervision do they move on to their last stage of rehabilitation.
The last stage before release is a large outdoor pool with a group of seals. In this way they can start learning key skills, like having to compete for food. These pools also help the seals to exercise, improve their fitness and improve their socialising skills.
When the seals reach their ideal weight and are healthy enough for release, they’re returned to the same body of water in which they were found, in groups if possible.
Want to know more?
Read more advice and information on seal pups, and what to do if you find one alone.
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