Tuesday 8 December 2020

Horsey seals, Honeyguide local guided walk, 7 December 2020

For our first walk after the autumn lockdown, six of us met at the National Trust’s Horsey Mill car park near the east Norfolk coast. For the early arrivals there was the distant sound of cranes bugling and the sight and sound of moving pink-footed geese.

Morning mist turned to sunshine as we found a route through a wetter than expected start to the path towards the distant dunes of sand and marram grass that make the sea defences here. Conditions then became easy once we were on the permissive path through this part of the Horsey Estate. Here three roe deer surprised us, then stood and watched us as we watched them in a field of oilseed rape.

Roe deer.

A sparrowhawk dashed away low over a crop along a hedge line then helpfully returned, the large, brown female settling in a tree. Fieldfares flew over at the same time and we had several sightings along the next part of the route. A uniformly brown marsh harrier and a male stonechat were two more good birds. Mary was alert to a yellow fungus on a tree branch in a small copse protected from browsing mammals by fencing; although it was out of reach it was close and distinctive enough to be identified as yellow brain fungus, which is parasitic on other fungi.

Yellow brain fungus (Cheryl Hunt).

Honeyguider Daphne Rumball is also a volunteer with Friends of Horsey Seals (FoHS) and she had arranged her rota to be on duty to meet us. Curiously, it was two seals in the ‘wrong’ place that took our attention to start with. One was a female that had come over the dunes and was on the inside of the fenced emergency access gap. That one would find its own way back, we were advised. Of more immediate concern was a large pup in a puddle on the track on the landward side of the high dunes. Daphne had called for some help from the chairman of FoHS and with the large board in the photo he cajoled the snarling youngster to move into the safety of the dunes.

A grey seal on the path snarls at a passing bike.

From the viewing path on the top of the high dunes, the beaches were awash with grey seals, the numbers and density reminiscent of grazing mammals on an African savannah. 

Seals as far as the eye could sea.

It was certainly peak time to be here: Daphne said that the latest count was 2900 adult seals, and the signboard on the way in said ‘pups born this year 1709’ including this week 477. Pups on the beach were of varying sizes, some very new and covered in white fur, other suckling, others bigger and at the point of being abandoned from maternal care. One bull was obviously, er, ready for mating; another, later, was in the act. Other bulls were waiting and hoping or being snarled at by females protecting their young. Daphne pointed out turnstones and sanderlings and one harbour (common) seal, this species slimmer and a more uniform colour and with a differently shaped nose when it looked towards us.

Honeyguiders overlooking the grey seal colony.

Grey seals (Cheryl Hunt).

On the return journey there were flocks of lapwings and a shaggy inkcap toadstool. We took a different route towards the end to avoid the muddiest area, bringing us alongside the road near Horsey Hall where almond-scented winter heliotrope was coming into flower on roadsides.

We took advantage of the food and drink on sale at Horsey Mill and picnic tables available in the chilly sunshine. After the group dispersed, Ann and I stopped briefly just a short distance away by the Horsey-Somerton road where there were a thousand or more pink-footed geese on a pasture on one side and a peregrine on an arable field on the other side.

Half of the money brought in from this walk was earmarked for Friends of Horsey Seals, match funded from the Honeyguide Charitable Trust, leading to a donation of £120 for the organisation that does so much to make the Horsey-Winterton coast such a haven for grey seals. Albert Ward from Friends of Horsey Seals says: “We thank you and very much appreciate the generosity of the Honeyguide Charitable Trust in making this donation.”

Chris Durdin

Grey seal (Cheryl Hunt).

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