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Common seal facing a new and dangerous threat

by Paul Cormacain 25/10/2002

A solitary seal was surfaced off-shore. It was taking a break from hunting and eating fish, was basically resting in the water, very slowing revolving on the lookout for enemies. It held itself very high in the water.

She was a common seal, which is a strange name for a seal which is very rare in Irish and British waters.

The commonest seal in these waters is the grey seal and it is very common. It is usually the one you would see in Strangford Lough, along the Down and Antrim coasts.

Moving from local waters to the international, we have to say that the grey seal is one of the world's rare seals. Are you following this?

Well over half the world's population of grey seals, some eighty thousand of them, live in British and Irish waters, which goes some way towards explaining how a rare seal can be a common seal. And how the common seal can be a rare seal!

About this time of the year the lady grey seals come ashore to produce their young. The males proceed them, with the object of establishing a territory.

The pregnant ladies give birth, then feed the young for about three weeks, after which time the young are left to fend for themselves.

The mother seals had been pregnant since the previous year. After the mothers and pups part company, the mothers and fathers come together, and the mothers become pregnant again. Next autumn the fathers will come ashore to establish a territory, and the whole thing will start off all over again.

The mama common seals come ashore in June and July to produce a single pup. This amazing little creature can swim and dive from birth, and it would frequently take to the water on the next tide.

The common seal likes fish. It eats fish as the main art of its diet, prefers salmon and herring, and will frequently raid fishing nets to take a trapped fish. This can make the common seal unpopular with fishing folk.

As I said, this common seal was on the look-out for enemies, and I started to think of what enemies this creature might have.

When the seal raids a fishing net many humans quickly become their enemies. The humans who own the nets, the humans who check the nets, and their families become instant enemies of the seal.

When a ship or boat is built, and bad design or bad maintenance is followed by an oil spill, the humans responsible are seal enemies.

Some common seal hunting is still carried on on some of the more remote parts of Scotland. If this is done in an honourable way for an honourable reason, I find that I cannot fault it, but some folk may decide that these hunters are enemies of the common seal

This was followed by seal deaths off the east coast of England, Wales is probably affected, and now we have reports here.

In Northern Ireland, in 1988, hundreds of dead seals were reported, and no doubt we will not escape the infection this time, but it will take research to come up with a fuller picture.

Further south, in Galway, a few dozen animals have been found dead, and research is going on at this time to get more details.

It is not believed the seal virus poses a threat to humans, but it is always best to be safe rather than sorry. Report, don't touch, is the golden rule. And if you have your dog with you when you come across a dead seal, keep the dog well away. Keep children away!

Coming Events

Saturday 26th October - Fermanagh RSPB indoor meeting, at 7.30, in St Macartin's Cathedral Hall, will hear about the Birds of Cape Peninsula South Africa from Warren Fowler. More from 6632 6654
Interested in a Hallowe'en Trail at Oxford Island at 12pm, then call 3832 2205 for details.

Monday 28 October - Lisburn RSPB will hear about Walking the Irish coast, with David Boyd, in Friends' Meeting House, Magheralave Road, at 7.30

Thursday 31 October - Birdwatch Morning at Castle Espie, starting 10.30, contact 9187 4146

Saturday 2 November, Sunday 3 November - Join the crowds going to Castle Espie, make a bird feeder there, make a bird cake, then take home to your garden, details 9187 4146

Saturday 16 November - Tree Planting in Colin Glen Forest Park, a part of the scheme to make our country one of the more afforested, rather than one of the least afforested, lands. Phone 9061 4115, turn up at I lam.

Saturday 23 November - The Reedy Flats Ramble is at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at lpm, with Walter Culbert showing wildfowl. Details from 3832 2205

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