Hope for seal colony recovery after hundreds of pups killed by Storm Arwen

The reserve lost 42 per cent of its seal pups last year – a total of 846 pups.
The reserve lost 42 per cent of its seal pups last year – a total of 846 pups.

One year ago, wind gusts reaching 110mph wreaked havoc as Storm Arwen hit Scotland.

The north-east of the country was particularly badly hit with the wind bringing down trees and power lines.

A danger-to-life weather warning covered vast parts of Scotland on November 25 and 26 last year.

In St Abb’s Head Nature Reserve, hundreds of Grey Seal pups were killed after the storm hit at the height of pupping season.

The reserve lost 42 per cent of its newborn seals – a total of 846 pups.

“Grim” scenes of piles of the young animals washing up on shore followed the storm.

However, this pupping season is showing “glimmers of hope” for the seal population, Ciaran Hatsell, a National Trust of Scotland ranger, told the BBC.

Speaking on the “pretty horrific scenes” in 2021, he said: “There would have been pups displaced off the beach that they were born on and then end up away from their mothers on isolated beaches and they would have slowly starved to death.

“On that scale, I have never seen anything like that.

“For days afterwards, there were piles of pups on the beaches.

“In the water there was a raft of over 200 dead pups in a big pile. It was just pretty grim, to be honest. It’s quite hard hitting.”

St Abb’s is in a “unique position” with cliffs overlooking the seal colony, allowing for easier monitoring of the population.

Mr Hartell added: “We were able to do a count before and after which a lot of places weren’t able to do.

“Our job is to count them after what happened and to quantify the loss.

“We were able to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation storm to really try and understand the effect it has on the seal populations here.”

While the storm had devastating impacts on the youngest members of the colony, the breeding adults were not as severely affected.

READ MORE: Hundreds of seal pups killed at nature reserve during Storm Arwen

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The ranger said: “They have bounced back; nature is resilient.

“Luckily the early signs are really positive, so it looks like the population is very stable.

“Looking at the count from last year and the count from this year – the first counts – they are very similar in number.

“So we haven’t had a reduction in the pupping rate, we haven’t lost a lot of breeding adults so it is actually a very positive thing.

“I was really happy. When I did the first count, I didn’t know what to expect.”

Seals have a lifespan of over 30 years, leaving them with many breeding years to up the colony’s population.

Mr Hartell explained that if the animals continue to nurture one pup each year during that time “they have a good shot at replacing themselves in the population going forward”. He added: “Although it was horrific and it was really hard hitting at the time, there are glimmers of hope that the population can recover from such a hard-hitting event.”

However, some aspects of nature which were destroyed by the severe weather will take longer to bounce back.

Winds during the storm also brought down trees across the north-east, through Tayside and into the Borders.

Initial estimates claimed 4,000 hectares of woodland had been knocked down but this figure later doubled to 8,000 hectares, or the equivalent of 16 million trees.

Scottish Forestry has called for more diversity in our forests to ensure they are stronger and more resilient.

Woodland diversity was discussed at a meeting with the forestry sector and Scottish Forestry on Wednesday.

Jason Hubert, the organisation’s head of business development, said: “We’ve not encountered storms as vicious as Arwen for many years and its effects were quite devastating for many woodland owners. The direction and ferocity of the wind meant many trees were simply not able to withstand the onslaught.

“With climate change having negative impacts on future weather patterns, we can probably expect windier and wetter winters.

“We need to create more diverse forests with different species, sizes and ages so that they can handle extreme weather events better. This will take time, but we can plan our future forests now.”