Seals on our Sussex coast show that conservationists are getting something right. It’s not just Gavin the well-loved harbour seal who sports with paddle boarders in Littlehampton; we can see these marvellous creatures now in Chichester harbour, Eastbourne and in the Adur, where two seals named Bramble and Rivier (who swam in from Belgium) have generated their own following.
According to Zoologist Stephen Savage of the Sea Watch Foundation, it’s a wonderful sign that our waters are clean enough to support food for these large animals. “They like mullet, flatfish and crabs mainly” he explains, “but they hunt anywhere in tidal or brackish water, even as far up as The Black Rabbit at Arundel.”
Stephen, who is County Recorder for Sea Mammals, has studied seals since 1997. The public have been stalwart supporters. Initially he collated sighting reports, but eight years ago increasing seal numbers allowed him to build a picture of populations in Sussex. “We hope to learn even more through citizen science” says Stephen. “The interaction of seals and people will significantly add to this story.”
Until now most studies of harbour seals have concentrated on their specific breeding grounds. The coast of Sussex represents a real opportunity for something new: to study solitary transiting seals along an entire coastline which is well used by people, ships and marine life. Whether it’s whales, storks or tigers, integrating wild animal populations with busy human lives is a problem that conservationists worldwide need to manage.
Stephen’s next step is to equip and train more volunteers so that they can recognise and record all the seals that visit our coasts and rivers. Stephen explains, “Recognising seals by natural markings is important, because it lets us know if a seal stays in Sussex waters or if it goes wandering elsewhere, such as Cornwall. Scientists down there will be interested to know about it too. Sharing data in this way will be a marvellous resource for tracking these seals so we can keep a careful eye on their population and health.”
Horsham being only a few miles from the sea, makes it an accessible opportunity. If you’d like to help Stephen and spend a few hours on the beach or maybe enjoying the beautiful coastal tidal marshes and creeks, why not get in touch with him? You can make a real difference. It’s real science, it’s most definitely really helping the planet –and it’s a really great day out.
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Written by Keir Hartley