From the cliff-top path a couple of hundred feet above, these coves backed by steep, sometimes near-vertical rock faces in multiple shades of ochre and grey look as nature intended. Down amongst the giant boulders and lying on the beds of crunching pebbles, it’s a slightly different picture. Here are the reminders of the jetsam of everyday shipping: plastic bottles, sheets of plywood, cardboard boxes and a lot else. Maybe some of it comes from holidaymakers a little further along the coast. But much of it clearly originates from further afield – hence the Cyrillic or Chinese writing on some of the containers – almost certainly dropped off ships that passed nearby. Like most people, I find this litter an affront to the natural beauty of the place. To the seals, of course, it matters not a jot. Unless, that is, an inquisitive pup – and these pups can be very inquisitive – ingests some discarded fishing hooks or gets tangled up in discarded fragments of fishing net or line. Then this jetsam can very easily be lethal.
On the far side of the damp cove, lying on a thick, oily-brown bed of kelp we spot a grey and white cow seal suckling her week old, blubbery, milk-surfeited pup. We walk, more correctly stumble, that way. ‘We won’t go too close; the cows can be very aggressive if they get cornered,’ warns Phil. Mostly, if they’re disturbed, a cow will waddle surprisingly fast down the beach and into the sea where they keep watch. But this one was different; she stayed put, snarling loudly when we get too close. And those teeth that can snap a large fish in half could easily snap off some human fingers.
On a sunny day with a calm sea, these coves look deceptively peaceful and idyllic. The rhythmic thuds of the surf mix with the haunting, human baby-like wail of young seal pups and the raucous, echoing calls of crow-like, black Choughs feeding on the yellow and blue flower-spattered clifftop turf. But stand here and witness a storm that tosses and smashes boulders into these cliffs as if they were toys and you might wonder how a podgy, metre long seal pup can survive at all. ‘Every year,’ says Phil, ‘about one in five pups die before they are weaned. Some of that’s natural mortality and some due to predators and storms. Once they are old enough to go to sea and fend for themselves, we don’t know how many more die; it depends on the weather conditions and food availability.’
About 1300 pups are born around the Pembrokeshire coast each season, 40% of them in sea caves and 60% on inaccessible shingle beaches like the ones we struggled on to. The seals have learnt to avoid pupping on most beaches that people can get access to. During the autumn breeding season peak when I joined them, the team were at a heightened pitch of anxiety. Phocine distemper virus (PDV), a natural seal disease something like a virulent influenza outbreak in humans, had spread to the UK from Scandinavia. It was already decimating Common Seals in The Wash on the east of England; the Common is a smaller species than the Grey, and seemingly more susceptible to PDV. Tests on the few Greys found dead off the Welsh coast had not yet found the virus. On Skomer Island, a mile offshore from where we were, Grey Seal numbers have been monitored for more than a quarter century – one of the longest such studies in the world – and pup numbers are increasing by about 10% per annum. There are some apparently suitable, inaccessible beaches hardly used by seals for breeding unless, that is, they avoid these sites for reasons we don’t understand. So, potentially, their numbers might increase even further.
Choosing a suitable cave or breeding beach must be a tricky business. There has to be enough shingle left dry for the young pups above any normal high tide, otherwise newborn pups will be carried out to sea and drown. And the distance from the sea at low tide to the top end of the rocky cove where many of the pups lie can’t be too great or the fasting cows will use up too much energy struggling up and down to feed them.
That first month for the pup, mostly left alone, is a crucial time. While they might only be susceptible to predators such as ravens or gulls while still a day or two old, they have no protection against storm battering for that vital first month. They cannot swim until they are at least a month old so entering the sea is certain death. Pups need to treble their birth weight in their first few weeks. So they need every feed going. After that, they have to fend for themselves out at sea. Outside the breeding season, this population of Greys – numbering around 5,000 and the southernmost in Europe swim far out to sea; north towards the Isle of Man, west to the Irish coast and south maybe to Cornwall and edging out into the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Getting close to a week old, milk-surfeited white pup with its doe eyes, it is all too easy to assume that they are as cuddly as they look. But as soon as Phil and I get too close, this cuteness immediately proves illusory. The docile pup in front of us transforms itself as it lurches forward, growling and gurgling aggressively, its jaw wide open, globules of saliva dripping between its needle-sharp teeth. No predator would have an easy time of it with one of these maritime Rottweilers. We step back a little.
From the cliff path above these coves, it’s natural for many people to assume, wrongly, that motionless pups lying alone, flippers-up amongst the boulders are ill or maybe even dead. ‘We get lots of phone calls from concerned members of the public,’ says Phil. ‘The pups sleep or lie motionless most of the time. The cows come ashore to suckle them only a few times a day. So they just lie there for hours on end all on their own. It’s good that people are concerned about them. But disturbance is still a concern. We need people to make themselves inconspicuous and to be quiet on the clifftops above the breeding beaches. Dogs need to be kept under control. Otherwise, the lactating cows will stay in the sea and the pups will miss feeds. And that could easily weaken them,’ he adds.