British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (photo: Steve Marsh)
British Divers Marine Rescue


2014-05-07 16:05:43

Busy Grey Seal Season in the South West

We're always busy with seal rescues around the UK and one of the busiest areas during the grey seal pupping season is the South West.  Here, Dave Jarvis, BDMLR's Cornwall Coordinator and Director gives a report of the activity over the autumn and winter when the weather really didn't help at all!  This is followed by a report from our consultant vet Darryl Thorpe, giving his perspective as well.

This from Dave:

Perhaps the biggest single factor in the 2013 –14 grey seal pupping ‘rescue season’ actually happen before it even began. In early August, BDMLR received an e-mail from the RSPCA Wildlife Centre at West Hatch to advise that because of the then proposed badger cull in Gloucestershire / Somerset that there might be a problem in accommodating any seal pups, which they usually did throughout the course of the Autumn & Winter months. The RSPCA were understandably concerned that they might have to take in injured or displaced badgers. For the previous 3 years, following an offer of assistance from Veterinary Surgery in mid-Cornwall, BDMLR had established a seal holding facility, where animals were initially admitted after rescue & treated by volunteers from the Charity, before being moved on to either West Hatch, or the Cornish Seal Sanctuary at Gweek. This was normally a maximum of two animals at any one time. During those preceding years the number of admissions had been 10 (2010 – 11), 3 (2011 – 12) & 8 (2012 – 13). Because it was envisaged that there might be a log jam if West Hatch were unable to provide their usual assistance, it was decided to double the size of BDMLR facility & various building works, upgrading of electrical systems & creation of pens was undertaken at a cost of approximately £3500. This proved to be pivotal in what was about to happen.

The pup ‘rescue season’ began spectacularly on Sunday 22nd September, when three ‘white coated’ pups were rescued from various locations in North Cornwall & taken to Gweek, together with another one which was picked up from Tresco, Isles of Scilly. The latter then became stuck on the Islands for a couple of days, together with the two medics who had gone to collect it, because of the thick fog that affected the flights & ferry, Eventually all three got back to the mainland on the cargo vessel on the 24th.

There was a 5am call to a ‘white coat’ that had appeared overnight on Perranporth beach on the 8th. It had been found by a postman who was walking his dog. It was picked up & taken to the Seal Sanctuary. Sea conditions over the next few days began to deteriorate which resulted in massive waves lashing the coast. This resulted in incidents involving pups that merely required observation, together with a series of rescues on 14th (1, Chapel Porth), 18th (2, both Boscastle) & 19th (2, Godrevy & Portherras Cove). One of the latter being a hazardous cliff rescue at a popular seal haul out site to retrieve a two day old ‘white coat’. This meant that Gweek were already looking after 10 pups, therefore when a call came on the 20th that there was another pup at Boscastle it became necessary to open the BDMLR facility, although it was only held there overnight before being transferred to the Seal Sanctuary.

Fortunately, word had now been received that the badger situation had not been as bad as anticipated & that West Hatch had a limited number of pens available to accommodate seal pups. This became important on the 23rd (Coverack) & again on the 25th (Gwithian), when pups were rescued & taken there, albeit that another badly injured one from Lelant had been admitted to Gweek as an emergency on the 23rd. Therefore the BDMLR hospital was again brought into action with rescues on the 26th (Padstow), 27th (Newlyn) & 28th (Portherras Cove) & the animals were cared for there until they could be re-located on the 30th. At the end of the month almost daily false alarm calls were being received, which resulted animals either being checked / re-located or just observed. This situation was to continue for the rest of the Winter.

Two pups were rescued on both the 3rd (Gwithian & Perranporth) & again on the 5th,  (Bude & Polzeath) which on both occasions resulted in one animal going to Gweek & the other to West Hatch, but a third pup was also rescued on the 5th & flown to the mainland from the Isles of Scilly. This was immediately taken to the BDMLR facility, with other pups from various locations around the Cornish coast, also being admitted on 6th (2, Godrevy & Mullion), 9th (3, Cape Cornwall, Millook & Bossiney), 10th (2, Godrevy & Isles of Scilly) & 12th (1, Rosenithon). Because the we were only theoretically able to hold four pups at any one time there again became a steady decanting of these animals by the 15th, but having achieved that the cycle began all over again between the 15th & 19th, when a further 6 pups (Port Quin, Sennen, Godrevy, Newquay, Portreath & Carbis Bay) were admitted by BDMLR, before being moved on by the 20th of the month. A further pup was rescued on the 25th (Perranporth) & then again on 30th (St Agnes), with both being initially looked after by the BDMLR team.

On the morning of the 5th a pup was rescued from Gunwalloe & taken direct to Gweek, but matters elsewhere on this day were again to have a major impact on the remainder of the seal pup rescues for the Winter. On the East Coast of the Britain weather & tidal conditions conspired to create a tidal surge & many areas were flooded. This meant that many seal pups were swept away, but the lucky ones were rescued & taken to rehabilitation facilities, such as RSPCA East Winch. As they became inundated it was decided to re-locate some of the casualties to other Centres, including West Hatch. This meant that pens that would normally have been available for decanting casualties in the South West disappeared literally overnight. Fortunately the weather locally was kinder & no other pups were rescued until the 12th, when a further one was picked up on the Isles of Scilly & flown to the mainland. On the 15th it rained, the winds picked up, the seas began to build & one pup was rescued from Cot Valley & taken to Gweek. The next day it continued to rain, the winds blew harder & the waves got bigger. What later proved to be one of the worst Winters on record had arrived. Pups were rescued on 18th (Perranporth), 20th (Porthcothan) & two early morning incidents on separate beaches in St Ives on the 21st.

All of these animals were taken in by the Seal Sanctuary, although a further animal was picked up during the evening from Cape Cornwall had to be taken to the BDMLR Hospital. One animal was also rescued on the 22nd from Port Quin & taken to Gweek & then another on the 23rd from Port Isaac, which went to the BDMLR facility. Christmas Day proved not to be a happy occasion as one of the pups being cared for by BDMLR died, so that resulted in pens having to be disinfected the same day & the removal of the body for post mortem. Amongst a plethora of calls on Boxing Day one pup was rescued from Helford Passage & taken to Gweek, although there was also a ‘live’ dolphin stranding at Perranporth, which proved to be a recently dead porpoise. On the morning of the 27th the remaining pup at the BDMLR facility was transferred to Gweek.

The afternoon proved to literally be our ‘finest hour’. A call was first received to Sennen, with a pup eventually located on the adjacent Gwynver beach. This was rapidly followed by calls to other injured or abandoned pups at Hayle, Bude & Port Isaac. Medics were deployed, rescued the animals & they converged on the BDMLR Seal Hospital & all arriving there within the space of an hour in the early evening. There then followed a well practiced routine of assessing & treating the casualties, filing in paperwork & cleaning of equipment, but four times over, but it all went very well. Whilst all of this was going on another pup was rescued from Rosenithon & taken to Gweek. The following evening an injured ‘white coat’ was picked up, this time from Newquay, by a medic who had literally just arrived home from a holiday abroad. The BDMLR Hospital was designed for 4 pups. It now had 5. Fortunately, Gweek were able to take the young ‘white coat’ the following day, whilst West Hatch managed to conjure up space for two of the others. There was one final rescue for the year on New Years Eve, which was from Mousehole & was taken to Gweek.

As the New Year began the rain got heavier, the wind was stronger & the waves got higher, but in Cornwall the telephone continued to ring. It rang 44 times in the first 11 days to report an animal potentially in distress. In the event not all of them proved to be so & some were just looking for some respite from the weather, but they were all checked & re-located if necessary, although 11 were rescued. One was picked up by the RSPCA from Millbrook on the 4th. Two went straight to Gweek (2nd, Hayle & 11th Gwithian), whilst the remainder were taken to the BDMLR Hospital. These were on 1st (1, Cadgwith), 3rd (2, Marazion & Port Quin), 4th (2, Polzeath & Port Gaverne), 6th (St Ives), 7th (Carbis Bay) & 9th (1, Cawsands). The majority of these were taken to West Hatch once they had space for them. There was also the live stranding on a bottlenose dolphin at St Austell on the 10th, which was successfully refloated, but was sadly found dead in the following days.

There was then a respite of a few days before it all began again on the 17th when a pup was rescued from Harlyn, which went to Gweek. This was soon followed by others on 18th (St Ives), two on 20th (Loe Bar & Perranuthnoe) & 24th (St Agnes), all of which were taken in by the Seal Sanctuary, but this meant that again they were now temporarily full. Therefore, when two further pups were rescued on the evening of the 25th (Polly Joke & Newlyn) they were initially looked after at the BDMLR Hospital, as well as another which came in from St Ives on the 29th. An unusual rescue occurred on the 26th, when BDMLR were asked to assist the RSPCA in capturing a cygnet that had taken up residence in Jubilee Pool, Penzance for several weeks. Using a small inflatable boat & surf boards the animal was manoeuvred into a corner, before being caught. A few days later the pool was devastated by the storms & may now never re-open.

The monsoon was heavier, the hurricane stronger & the tidal waves constant. Somerset was underwater, the main railway line in Devon was washed away. On the 2nd a French fishing trawler ran aground at Porthcothan & medics were on standby awaited the worst, but the sea conditions broke up the oil & diesel spillage before it did any damage. The first pup of the month was at Portreath on the 3rd, followed by one from Newquay on 5th & Porthgwarra on 8th, all of which Gweek were able to accommodate, but on the 9th another pup from Porthgwarra was taken to the BDMLR facility for an overnight stay. There was then a late night rescue from St Ives on 17th, which went straight to Gweek & then on the 19th the last animal of the season that had need of the BDMLR Hospital was rescued from Portwrinkle. Then rain stopped, the wind died away & the waves became calmer. There were no further seal pup rescues in February.

As ever, with the seal rescue season in the Duchy, there was a sting in the tail. On the 3rd a pup was rescued from Porthgwarra & having been rushed to Gweek, was sadly euthanased because it had a severely broken jaw & lost many of it’s teeth. This was followed by a report on the 9th of an 87m long freighter sinking 10 miles of Lizard Point, so again medics were put on standby to respond, should the worst happen. Happily, salvage experts we able to avert disaster & the ship was towed to Plymouth. There was then another live bottlenose dolphin stranding in Milbrook on the 15th, which also had to be put to sleep. Two further seal pups were then rescued, both from Porthcurno, one on the 21st & another on the 26th, before the final stories of the season.

A call was received early on the 26th that a dolphin had live stranded at Carbis Bay. Upon arrival it was found that members of the public had re-floated the animal several times. Unfortunately it was now struggling in the tide that was pushing it into rocks at one end of the beach. One medic was able to get to it to help it, but the animal then struggled free & swam off. The young striped dolphin washed up dead the following morning on Hayle beach. Then on the evening of the 29th, medics attended Portreath & found a pup, which was found to have a flipper tag. It turned out to be a pup that had previously been rescued with serious injuries, on 23rd October 2013. It had been re-habilitated & released back into the wild earlier in the year, but seemed to now have additional wounds as well as being lethargic & a very high temperature. It was taken back to Gweek, but sadly died there a few days later.

A few statistics from the records show that;

During the course of the six & a half months, between 22nd September 2013 & 31st March 2014, BDMLR medics in Cornwall responded to 198 calls for assistance.
85 grey seal pups were rescued, of which 41 spent a period of time at the BDMLR Seal Hospital.
8 of the pups sadly died during either rescue or rehabilitation at one of the Centres involved.
In the 128 days between 20th October 2013 & 24th February 2014, when the Seal BDMLR Hospital was ‘open’ it was occupied for 67 days (52%).
For two short periods there were 5 pups being treated at the BDMLR Seal Hospital.

As ever, the rescue responses in Cornwall are very much a team effort & many people were involved. BDMLR would like to thank the following;

Tamara Cooper & the members of the Animal Care Team at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, Gweek, for their unstinting efforts in dealing with all of the pups that were brought in.

Paul Riley of Head & Head Veterinary Surgery, for his dedication & on occasions making the impossible possible.

Peter Venn, Paul Oaten & the staff at RSPCA West Hatch, for being there when we needed you to take the overflow.

Finally, thanks must go to all of the BDMLR medics who responded to the call when it came. Some helped in many ways, but they have been identified in the part where they were most active.

On the beaches & Islands – Bex Allen, Del Allerton-Baldwin, Rebecca Amos, Bob Archell, Faye Archell, Kelly Astley, Tim Bain, Simon Bone, Marilyn Botham, Robin Bradley, Annie Brogden, Liz Clarke, Danny Cooper, David Cormack, Carly Daniels, Delphiris, Simon Dennis, Heike Dorn, Katie Drake, Jen Dykwer, Jan Egan, Claire Garland, Suzi Gilpin, Simon Greenwood, Jessica Grove, Jenny Haley, Natalie Hamill, Robin Hartley, Jessica Hirons, Dan Jarvis, Dave Jarvis, Lesley Jarvis, Amy Jones, Nathan Jones, Susan Jordan, Annabelle Lowe, Chris Lowe, Tabitha Lowe, Dave McBride, Katy Milne, Richard Morton, Sue Morton, Mal Moss, Katherine Mostley, Dan Murphy, Emma O’Neill, Kate Owen, Janet Pearce, Sarah Pitcher, Michelle Robinson, Rory Sacree, Sue Sayer, Sue Searle, Jamie Shields, Simone Slater, Katherine Smith, Colin Stratton, Laura Sutton, Chris Sykes, Mike Taylor, Debs Wallis, Sue Waterhouse, Trevor Waterhouse, Barry Williams, Joyce Williams, Steve Wright, Steve Wyatt, Jan Ziolo

At BDMLR Seal Hospital – Michelle Barley, Imogen Barnett, James Barnett, Andrea Blackburn, Andy Cornelius, Phil Jarvis, Jessica Jarvis, Zoe Johnson, Katie Lewis, Lisa Morgans, Michelle Rendell, Jeff Taylor, Darryl Thorpe,

Transport & relays – Chris Berry, John Buck, Bea Hawker, Dave McDonald

Dave Jarvis
BDMLR Director & Cornwall Area Co-ordinator

...and this from Darryl:

Confirmation that the seal pup season had started arrived Joan & I were enjoying the sun in Tenerife in mid October, when I got a text message from Dave Jarvis about 2 seals at Boscastle. I turned to Joan lying next to me on the beach & said “It’s started, we should have come here in September!”

We got home in the early hours of the 23rd October & after that it became a bit of a blur for several weeks. My first call to the vets in mid Cornwall was on Saturday 26th October to see Orion a 25kg male from Padstow who had several bite wounds & a high temp. Over the next couple of days Solar & Pluto came in & this was the time when we started to get an unexplained feeling things were going to get busy. It was also a time when our team of volunteers started a steep learning curve in seal pup wrestling & stomach tubing. Jeff Taylor in particular springs to mind. He lives a short drive from the vets & did the BDMLR course in the summer of 2013; at that time he mailed me to let me know he was available & keen to get experience. We all know what happens when you say things like that don’t we! It’s nearly as bad as using the Q-word, as in “It’s fairly quiet at present isn’t it”…….. Over those 2 or 3 days we had 4 vets involved with helping to assess & treat the pups- James Barnett, myself, Katie Lewis & Andy Cornelius, who examined the pups, took blood samples, gave injections & treated wounds. Medics who helped by restraining & stomach tubing these pups were Chris & Annabelle Lowe, Tabitha Lowe, Jeff Taylor, Michelle Rendell, Zoe Johnson.

This was basically the pattern of the next 3 months. We had a fantastic team of vets & medics the latter becoming very skilled at stomach tubing the pups & force feeding fish. I got used to the call-outs & my partner Joan came with me to maintain the retail income of some of the shops in the nearby town.

Some days stand out more than others.

On November 5th I was called to a pup flown over from the Isles of Scilly. On the way from the airfield to the surgery Dave’s car was hit by a rogue rocket from someone’s bonfire so the pup was named Rocket; our theme for the season’s names was space. As the weeks passed with a convoy of storms hitting us & West Hatch’s pen space being severely limited by pups from Norfolk, it was becoming clear we’d need a long list of reserve names so I did some online research for a list of planetary moons & galaxies.

3 pups went to Gweek on the morning of November 8th &  9th & in the evening of the 9th 3 more seals were admitted to the vets- 1 weaned Perseus, & 2 whitecoats Cassiopia (Cassie) & Kirk. Perseus fairly quickly became known as “The Feisty One” & he maintained this reputation after he was transferred to West Hatch on the 12th. He reminded me of Dave’s favourite comment to those about to jump their 1st live pup- “they’re just like the model on the course- but they wriggle & bite!”

After Christmas on 27th December I got a call from Dave to say medics were checking on pups at 4 locations Hayle, Bude, Port Isaac, Sennen Cove. Then in the late afternoon Dave called me out to the vets to assess all 4 pups Ceres, Northstar, Pollux & Phoebe (a moon of Uranus, which has many moons, very handy for us this winter!). This marathon session sticks in my mind because of the great team helping out. As Dan Jarvis jumped & restrained each pup for me, I examined them, took blood samples, cleaned wounds & injected antibiotics & anti-inflammatory drugs. Dan then stomach-tubed Lectade into each pup.

During this, other medics cleaned out the cages the pups arrived in, transferred blood samples to the fridge, made up Lectade, prompted my memory as I completed each pup’s recording sheet- so thanks to Dave, Lesley & Dan Jarvis, Jeff Taylor, Zoe Johnson, Chris & Annabelle Lowe. Helpfully 2 of these seals started self feeding fish of the pen floor the next day- that always makes life a bit easier & less dangerous! Over the next few days the other 2 started self feeding & their wounds & high temperatures improved. Pollux had a eye ulcer which healed well over 3 or 4 days. Many of these pups had bite wounds & damaged nails & digits from scrabbling on rocks in storms.

On the 10th of January as I was preparing to go to the vets to do the lunchtime session on 3 pups Rigel, Ferdinand (Uranus again!) & Asteroid, Dave phoned me about a bottlenose dolphin stranded on Par Beach a few miles east of St Austell. It was in moderate body condition but unable to stay upright at first so Jeff Taylor, Jamie Shields, Danny Cooper, Robin Bradley & I rocked it in the tarp for a while. This gradually improved its posture & stability & we released it then it gradually went further out into the bay & we lost sight of it. Unfortunately it was found dead 3 days later about 400M along the same beach. From there Jeff & I went on to the vets to assess & feed the 3 pups. The next day Asteroid went up to the RSPCA at West Hatch Somerset & was shown looking very well on the local TV news on Friday 21st March, being released on a North Devon beach.

We were able to use the Q-word for about 2 weeks as the next 2 pups came in on the 25th January for the now familiar routine of veterinary assessment, injections & tubing with Lectade- Erica from the Newquay area with bites & laboured breathing & Oberon from Penryn underweight at 14kg. Both went to the CSS on the 28th.

Between the 29th January & 19th February we had only 3 more pups come in Phobos (Mars, Bianca & Cupid (both Uranus again). At the time of writing (27th March) Cupid was the last; she went to Gweek on the 25th February. So, touchwood, it may be the end of this winter’s season although we have had a whitecoat pup in April a couple of winters ago. In a “normal” pup season we have about 4 to 10 pups going through the facility at the vets, on their way to Gweek or West Hatch; this season the final tally was 41! On top of this medics in Cornwall had a record number of call-outs. People ask me what happened! I think it was a result of the convoy of storms coming in to the South West for an extended period at a time when many pups were being weaned, losing weight while they learned to feed & being unable to cope with the conditions & becoming exhausted. We had at least one pup sheltering in a shop doorway (Port Isaac) & I went to assess one sheltering at the start of a night storm in a beach café carpark- he strongly objected to being put in the seal bag for weighing (27kg) then refused to get out of it. 2 days later half the beach café was demolished by the storm.

Many thanks to all those responding to call-outs & braving some challenging weather conditions and to the vets, vet nurses & the medics who helped at the temporary holding facility.

Special thanks to Dave Lesley & Dan Jarvis who drove all over the County seeking seals in distress.

Darryl Thorpe
BDMLR Veterinary Consultant


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