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A weekend in Norfolk - Horsey Seals and Hickling Broad Nature Reserve

This is a trip review of a weekend spent in Norfolk, looking for grey seals and other wildlife around the Norfolk coastline.

I visited in February - a little later than ideal for the seals, but there were still a few around.

a sanderling grazing for insect food on Horsey beach
Sanderling - Pecking

I made an early start, and got to the beach for 7am. This gave me 5 minutes to setup my camera and wait for sunrise.

I made my best effort to go unnoticed, as the seals were more wary of human presence than I expected. I used the dunes and rocks as cover, and crouched still as soon as any of them looked at me. With practice, I was able to creep into position without them showing any sign of concern.

I started off taking photos in the perfect warm light of sunrise, but found it very difficult to find an interesting composition. Because the seals are black (when in the water, at least), it's very difficult to pick out detail in anything less than strong lighting. So although I got some nice colours in the water surface, the seals looked rather like a shapeless blobs of black. With experience and time, I think I can do better with the sunrise photos, but for now, I have to settle for black shapes in the sunlit water.

seal pup on the beach at sunrise
Seal Pup (original image replaced in 2022)

Sunrise didn't seem to last long, and before I knew it, we were into normal morning conditions. Hardly a cloud in the sky, and the low winter sun made for pretty good lighting during the morning. I continued to use the dunes and the rocks as cover, only coming out to lay on the sand and stay low. I got a few photos of the typical lone pup, and some action shots of the adults sparring for mating rights.

Seal Pup on Horsey beach, Norfolk
Seal Pup (original image replaced in 2022)

I think my favourite shots of the day were of the tiny sanderlings, busily active on the beach, taking very little notice of either me or the seals. They were very characterful little birds, and quite an unexpected highlight. I'll definitely be looking for them again on my next visit.

sanderling pecking at the sand for food, on Horsey Beach, Norfolk
Sanderling - Pecking

All in all I enjoyed it, but I had a tough time - trying to look for an interesting composition, struggling with the direction of the light, the cold wind (and sand carried by it), the position of the seals on the beach, and most importantly, my safety and their contentment. Keeping them happy and comfortable became easy once I learnt what to do. But seals are big animals, and down on the beach with them, I didn't want to be too close. There's also the possibility of encountering one behind a rock, or in the dunes, or just looking over my shoulder to find one right behind me. That's where the real danger lays - in unexpected or surprise encounters.

I was also surprised by the number of visitors to the beach; both locals and tourists. By around 10am, there were a few groups of runners out, using the beach as an ideal space for a morning jog. I would assume that as locals, they would know the seals were there, and not to run right past them on the beach. And yet the number of times I saw seals startled and waddling back into the sea because of joggers, dog walkers, or families getting too close.

I've previously visited earlier in the season, and was surprised by how busy the site was with tourists at that time. During December and January, the beach is roped off to discourage people from getting too close to the seals. This is a real shame for those who would love to view them from the beach itself, but it's understandable given the lack of respect shown by most visitors.

What isn't currently understood is why the seal population is increasing so rapidly around the East coast of Norfolk and Linconshire. The number of breeding adults and pups born is rising every year, by some way, even considering the rather informal methods of counting in place. I would like to think that there are people studying the subject, so perhaps we'll get some answers soon. In the meantime, the local residents of the surrounding areas are going to have to get used to the swell in tourism which will inevitably increase year-on-year, as a result. They will need some investment in local infrastructure, and to keep the habitat (particularly the dunes) in tact in the light of this annual increase in footfall. I just hope that those responsible are able to get the balance right between respecting the seals and turning a profit from tourists. I'd hate to go back one year and see the whole area roped off; restricting views completely. Yet, on the other hand, in a few years the place could easily become a circus. For me, Horsey is one of the few parts of the UK where large wild animals are readily accessible and observable, and I'd hate to lose that privilege.

Seal Pup - Horsey Beach, Nofolk, UK
Seal Pup - Horsey Beach

Having taken advantage of the morning light, I left the seals at lunchtime and moved off to Hickling Broad Nature Reserve. The reserve was recommended to me by local ecologist Perry Fairman, who was very knowledgeable and has been familiar with the site for years.

It's peaceful and quiet and looks like a nice habitat for birds, and waterfowl in particular. I didn't spend too much time in the hides, as it wasn't really the right time of day to expect much, but it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, walking around the various mapped routes.

In late afternoon, the place to be is the 'raptor roost'. This is an outlook with views over the surrounding fields, which are frequented by a number a bird species, including a host of birds of prey. I got my first sightings of hen harriers and marsh harriers, which were both larger than I expected. There were a few around though. Then I got to see some real action as a small flock of starlings took to the air, startled by an oncoming peregrine. It managed to single one out from the flock, but as it performed emergency evasive manoeuvrers, it just about escaped the clutches of the peregrine on the third sharp turn. It was lightening fast though, and I've never seen anything display that level of manoeuvrability. After the raptors, I was fortunate enough to see some of Britain's flock of common cranes. I saw a pair of cranes flying into the fields in front of us. They stayed put for about 40 minutes or so, and then flew off into the distance. I did take some photos of them in flight, but they were a little too far away for me, so they're mainly a collection of blurry pixels. But at least I was able to enjoy it at the time.



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