The North Wexford facility is getting ready to welcome two more seal pups but know there are plenty more to come
The grounds of Seal Rescue Ireland’s centre in Courtown may be relatively quiet right now but, following the arrival of common seal pup Selkie, the team knows that the silence and stillness will be short-lived.
Selkie’s arrival marks the beginning of common seal pupping season – one of the busiest times of the year for the Seal Rescue Ireland team. In an effort to prepare for the upcoming season, the organisation recently held a naming raffle, raising funds for the care of the rescues and securing Selkie’s new name in the process.
It is the combination of seal sighting reports, rescue centre volunteers and donations that gives poorly seal pups like Selkie the chance to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. Selkie was born prematurely and was approximately one day old when she was rescued from Bertra Beach in Mayo. Without the support of her mother, she needed human care in order to pull through.
"She had no teeth and still had a fluffy lanugo coat. Common seals usually moult that in utero. They’re supposed to be born with an adult waterproof coat and that’s why they stay with their mothers. They can swim right away,” explained Melanie Croce. “Her mother was likely not lactating yet so that is probably why she was abandoned. If we hadn’t found her, there would have been no hope.”
While Selkie was very vulnerable when she first arrived at SRI, she is now thriving. This is thanks to round the clock care and regular feedings of nutritious “fish soup”.
“We make the fish soup with ground up herring, electrolytes, salmon oil to help them bulk up and any vitamins they need,” explained Melanie. “We try to get them on to fish as quickly as we can. That means they’ll be able to eat on their own.”
Both common and grey seals face many threats which result in the need for rescue and rehabilitation. For common seals, who are born in the summer months, one of the biggest threats is human disturbance.
"If you see a seal on a beach, it is really important to maintain a distance of at least 100 metres. If a seal is even looking at you, it is considered disturbance because that means it is not resting. Over time, that can impact its immunity and strength,” said Melanie.
Trying to chase seals back into the water or attempting to feed them is also not advisable, said Melanie.
“If a seal is on the beach, it’s there for a reason. Always give us a call on our seal rescue hotline, which is open 24 hours a day. If we don’t answer, we are likely on the phone to someone else so will call back. We also have a form online that people can fill out.”
Keeping dogs on a lead is another way to reduce seal disturbance and potential injury, said Melanie. This is also in the interest of both dog and owner because, as seals and dogs are close relatives, there is a risk of zoonotic disease transfer if a bite incident occurs.
There are many significant but perhaps, less visible threats facing seals in the wild. Plastic ingestion and entanglement affects not just seals, but all forms of marine and bird life. Taking part in beach cleans and avoiding the use of balloons are some things people can do to reduce these issues. Unsustainable fishing activity is a global problem that also affects all marine life.
Extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis are also affecting seals, particularly pups who can drown, experience injury or become separated from their mother during a strong storm. Following Storm Ophelia in 2017, SRI received 300 calls to their seal rescue hotline in one week.
Another issue seals are facing is poor water quality resulting from pollutants entering the waterways. Living in and eating fish from unclean water can lower a seal’s immune system.
"A seal with a vulnerable immune system is really vulnerable to illnesses that otherwise they would be able to beat,” explained Melanie. “Last year, we had three separate seals that we rehabbed, got healthy and released and then later had to re-rescue. All of them had heavy parasite burdens when they came back. Obviously, there is something in the water and this is why we cant just stop at rescue, rehab and release. We have to focus on proactive conservation. Otherwise, we are putting healthy animals back out into a damaged environment.”
In light of this, SRI is working with local stakeholders on a habitat restoration initiative, which sees them planting native species along waterways and coastlines. This helps to filter the water going into our waterways, supports soil retention, creates new habitats and helps to fight climate change, said Melanie.
Selkie will soon have plenty of company. At the time of publication, SRI was preparing to welcome two more seal pups from Galway to the centre and they expect many more to arrive in the coming weeks. Caring for all of these seals is no mean feat. At the season’s height, the team can go through two tonnes of fish per week.
Seal Rescue Ireland relies on the eyes and ears of the public to find out about seals in need of care. Stranded seal sightings can be reported to Seal Rescue Ireland via the Rescue Hotline: 087 1955393.