Seals At Donna Nook
For most of the year Donna Nook is a quiet windswept little beach on the Lincolnshire coast near Saltfleet between Mablethorpe to the South and Cleethorpes to the North which is the home to an RAF live fire gunnery range and a large colony of Grey Seals. Around November each year the males will set up breeding territories and the females will come in onto the mudflats to have their pups and nurse them for 2 to 3 weeks. During this time the females do not feed, living on their fat reserves whilst the pups gorge on her 60% fat content milk that she provides.
The pups are born with a silky soft white fur and weigh around 14 kg but will put on around 2 kg a day whilst being fed. Once the pup is weaned the mother will leave it and head back to the sea running the gauntlet of the males waiting to mate with her on the way. The pups remain on the mudflats to moult before heading out to the sea where they will have to teach themselves how to be seals.
Between 30 to 50 percent will die within their first year, but those that survive can expect to live 25 to 30 years.
Planning A Photo Day At Donna Nook
The best time of year to go to Donna Nook is between the second week of November to the end of the second week of December during which time their should be pups. From past experience the first week of December is a good time as being midway in the season there should be pups of all sizes around although timings do vary a little.
To get there you need to find Marsh Lane out of North Somercotes which runs down to the car park. The nearest postcode is LN11 7PD which will get you on to Marsh Lane which you follow to the end. During the season the small public car park fills up long before dawn. An enterprising farmer usually opens up one of his fields as a car park a short distance away which you can pay to use during the season. (Hint: in the past he has also provided toilet facilities here as well!)
There are two parts to Donna Nook. The first is the seal breeding sanctuary which is cordoned off to keep people away from the seals but you can still be close to some of them if you follow the path along until you find a suitable seal. The second part is the sandbar that protects the mudflats from the sea and which involves walking around 1km across slippery muddy terrain until you get to the sand bar. Over the years there has been a lot of controversy over whether or not people should go out there with Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust wardens doing their utmost to stop you.
Welfare And Safety
If you choose to go out to the Sandbar then sensible behaviour is a must both in terms of animal welfare and for your own safety. During the week the sandbar forms part of the RAF Donna Nook live firing range and access is not permitted so weekends are a must. From a personal point of view remember that you are on a North Sea beach in winter so pay attention to the weather conditions – over the years we have been out there in the first weekend of December with one year being -8 degrees and another year at +12 degrees. Also remember that the weather can change very fast and can go from a bright sunny day to white out snow blizzard in just a few minutes. We have once had to use a small button compass to find our way back to the car park where visibility was so poor.
You will also need to sand-proof your camera gear as you will be spending a fair amount of time lying on your belly with the wind blowing the fine sand everywhere. Optech Rain Sleeves are a good investment so long as you tape them closed to prevent sand and/or rain getting to the camera.
As far as animal welfare goes, again being sensible is the key. Seals are big wild animals and even a small pup can give a nasty bite. Use a long lens so you don’t need to go close to the seals, particularly the nursing mothers and their pups. Also keep a good eye open to everything around you. The big bulls are all fired up and intent on mating so there is often a lot of squabbling going on amongst them with animals charging around with scant regard for you. Keep your distance.
Put simply – as long as possible. The longer your reach the more opportunities you will have from the pathway through the sanctuary area. The smallest we would recommend would be 70 – 300mm with 100 to 400mm or even larger being better. It’s also worth bring something smaller to get the environmental photos as well as the detail ones, just don’t get too close to the seals! On the sandbar, again as long as possible to keep you away from the seals – the longer the better – with the minimum being 300mm.
Other recommendations would be to shoot from low down even if it means lying on the sand or mud to do so – eye level is always best – just remember to sand proof your camera and lens before you get down there.
Get there early – at weekends parking can be a nightmare, during the week parking at the Sanctuary is usually easy.
Don’t bring your dog – seals and dogs do not get on and dogs are not permitted in the sanctuary.
Other than that stay sensible and stay safe!