After reading a recent post of Becky’s my own comment on that post got me thinking back to an amazing wildlife experience I had at a place on the Lincolnshire coast back in 2007, so in the absence of a Monday walk I thought I would post an account and a few photos of that experience. I can’t remember now how I first found out about this particular place – probably from the camping forum I frequent – but the more I read about it the more I wanted to go there so I started doing some serious research and came across a very informative website for photographers.
Donna Nook National Nature Reserve covers over 6 miles of the Lincolnshire coastline and is made up of sand dunes, sand and mud flats, salt marshes and inter-tidal areas ; it’s also part of a larger area owned by the Ministry of Defence and the sand flats are used during the week for RAF bombing practice. Interesting plant communities flourish in the salt marshes and 47 species of birds breed regularly in the area, with over 250 migrant species passing through, but the main attraction for visitors is the large colony of grey seals which, from the end of October to late December, use the sand flats and salt marshes in one particular area for breeding and giving birth to their pups before returning to sea.
A special enclosed double-fenced viewing area at the foot of the dunes is staffed by volunteer wardens from the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, but back in 2007 serious photographers were allowed to go out onto the sand flats to observe and photograph the seals at close quarters, though certain rules had to be followed. Anyone wanting to photograph these creatures close up would need to be serious about it too as there was a bitingly cold wind blowing and the mile trek across the sand involved wading through water channels several inches deep ; it was necessary to wear at least three layers of warm clothing plus dark coloured waterproofs and wellies and in some instances to act like a seal by crawling or sliding along the wet sand.
In the course of my research that year I found out that there was a nice little camp site only a couple of miles from where the seals were so I booked four nights for myself, my partner and our caravan and off we went at the end of November, arriving at the site at lunch time. Our first full day there was treated as a recce of the seal area and even from behind the fence I could see that this place was pretty special ; hundreds of seals, both young and adult, were dotted about over a huge area and as far as the eye could see, and several were close up against the fence with one pup having its head actually under the inner fence.
The following day, suitably dressed in warm layers, waterproofs and wellies, we set out from the viewing area on our trek across the sand and out towards the sea, following a designated marked out route to avoid the possibility of being blown up by some unexploded object buried in the sand – presumably, as long as we followed the rules and the route, we would survive with arms and legs etc intact. Eventually we got close to the sea – seals were dotted about everywhere and I spent well over an hour getting shots of various adults and pups. I got close but not too close – I had to kneel, sit, crawl or lie on the wet sand several times but it meant that I got the shots I wanted without disturbing the seals so it was worth any minor discomfort.
The next day we returned to the reserve as I hoped to see a seal pup being born, though this time we stayed behind the fence. Unfortunately I didn’t get to witness an actual birth but I did see a little one which had obviously been born not long before. I got several more photos of these wonderful creatures but the intermittent sunshine wasn’t enough to give any warmth to the day and it was bitterly cold so reluctantly I said goodbye to Donna Nook and we returned to the camp site for our final evening.
Five years later I went back to Donna Nook on my own. I’d enjoyed the previous experience of getting close to the seals on the sand flats so much that I wanted to repeat it but when I got there I found that things had changed – access to the sand flats and beach had been blocked and all visitors had to stay behind the fence. On talking to one of the wardens I was told that since my previous visit the handful of serious photographers allowed onto the beach had turned into coachloads of visitors and as many as 300 people a time were walking out across the sand flats. This meant that at least 65 seal pups per season were being lost, abandoned by their mothers and left to die because of all the human disturbance.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that I couldn’t repeat my previous experience ; I was disappointed as it had been such a fantastic thing to be able to do, but I fully understood and respected the reasons for preventing public access to the beach while the seals were there – just one pup lost to human interference is one too many. Seals have been breeding at Donna Nook since the 1970s and numbers have been increasing each year, with a total of 2,066 pups being born during the short 2018 season. My once-in-a-lifetime experience back in 2007 had proved to be just that, but if I ever go to Donna Nook again I know I’ll still get some great photos even if I do have to stay behind the fence.