Visiting Norfolk's seals
A well known sight on our coast are the common and grey seals, often seen lounging on the beach or curiously watching us from the water. With over half of the world's population, approximately 80,000 individuals, choosing to use Britain's coastline, we are incredibly lucky that a large proportion of these can be found around Norfolk's shores.
While both species can be seen throughout the year, the spectacle of huge numbers of grey seals gathering here every winter to breed and give birth to their pups is a special one. With such a large proportion of the world's seal population found in Norfolk and as they are protected under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, it is essential we all do what we can to look after this iconic species.
Discover more below about the seals, how you can visit them safely and, crucially, how you can minimise their disturbance, particularly during the critical breeding seasons.
Watch a short film made by students at City College Norwich - The Grey Seals of Horsey tells the story of the efforts to look after one of the UK's most successful breeding seal colonies and can be viewed at https://youtu.be/XuTb8MsDIz0
During your visit please follow this advice...
1) Keep a minimum of 10 metres from any seal and move on quickly
Seals can be easily spooked from their resting spots and this will happen if you get too close or if you observe the same seal for a long period of time, at close range. Disturbance to a suckling pup may cause its mother to abandon it or prevent the mother from feeding it as much as it needs. If the pup does not build up enough reserves before being weaned, it is unlikely to survive until adulthood. If a pup is spooked it may also move into a bull seal's territory and be hurt or killed.
2) Stay on the landward side of the seal
While the pup stays on the beach, their mother will often remain in the water, watching their pup from a distance. By staying up the beach from the seal you avoid walking between them and their mother. This enables the mother to reach their pup for feeds, and for mature seals, it gives them an escape route should they become spooked.
3) Keep your dog on a lead
Quite simply, seals and dogs don't mix. Seal disturbance will be kept to a minimum and you will avoid the risk of your dog being bitten by a seal and potentially contracting 'seal finger'.
4) Keep an eye out for seals
Seals move around so stick to marked paths and be aware that seals may also be on them.
5) Don't approach a seal
Even if you think it is in trouble. If you have concerns contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue: 01825 765546 or RSPCA 24hr emergency line: 0300 1234 999.
6) Follow advice from the volunteer seal wardens (Horsey and Winterton)
The wardens will have the most up to date information about the seals and where to walk. By following their advice you can minimise disturbance to the seals and other wildlife and minimise impact on the fragile environment.
7) Care for the environment
The sand dunes along this stretch of coastline are internationally and nationally recognised as important habitats for a wide range of plants and animals. They also play a vital role as sea defences, a barrier to the fierce easterly storms which hit this coastline in the winter.
By sticking to the marked paths and staying outside of enclosed areas (intended to protect certain species and allow the habitats time to recover from trampling), you will be helping to care for this stunning environment so others can enjoy it.
Please take your litter home with you and if you have a spare 5 minutes why not have your own mini beach clean? Not only will it keep the area looking good but it will reduce the amount of harmful litter in the marine environment.
8. Care for the local community
When visiting the seals consider the small, rural communities in this area. If you have to come by car, please park considerately in the allocated car parks and allow plenty of time for your visit, particularly during busy times of the year. Use local shops and services as much as possible. And please try to minimise your impact on the local area and its residents.
Download our factsheet below for more information about grey seals:
The differences between grey and common seals...
Grey seals and common seals (aka harbour seals) are classed as 'true seals', meaning that they have no external ears and have shorter front flippers. Unlike 'eared seals' such as sea lions, our seals are less mobile on land and tend to move along the ground on their belly.
The grey seal can be distinguished from the common seal by its long, straight 'Roman' nose and wide nostrils earning its scientific name Halichoerus grypus, meaning "hooked-nosed sea pig". Common seals, Phoca vitulina, have smaller, rounder heads with shorter noses.
Adult grey seals can grow up to 2.5 metres long while Common seals are smaller at up to 160cm in length. Grey seals can live up to 35 years while commons have a lifespan of around 30 years. As males in both species undertake fierce territorial battles with each other, they do not tend to live as long as females.
Whilst common seals breed and give birth in the summer months, grey seals gather in large breeding colonies or 'rookeries' over the winter. For grey seals in particular, optimal conditions along the Norfolk coast have meant that numbers of adults, and pups being born, have increased significantly year on year since the early 2000s. Current strongholds are at Blakeney and along the east coast between Horsey and Winterton. Consequently, the numbers of people visiting these areas to see the seals has also risen.
How to see the seals
Guided seal boat trips provide the best and safest way for you to get close to the seals without disturbing them. Several experienced local companies organise regular trips throughout the year, either into the Wash or off the Norfolk coast. Click here for further information and contact details.
The east coast of Norfolk between Sea Palling and Winterton is very rural with small villages, narrow roads and limited parking. Please try to visit at less busy times (outside of the Christmas holidays) and use alternatives to the car where possible. While you are in this area why not make use of local cafes and shops as part of your visit? Please note that WC facilities in these establishments will be for customers only.
Public transport is limited, however buses do travel to Winterton from Great Yarmouth.
By bike: Sustrans regional route 30 runs the length of the east coast of Norfolk, enabling access to Horsey or Winterton.
By car: Please car share where possible and use official car parks at the following places:
Horsey Gap: Horsey beach car park from which you can follow the allocated paths to dedicated viewing areas and find out more about the seals from the volunteer wardens.
National Trust's Horsey Windpump from which you can cross the road and follow the footpath up to Crinkle Gap to access the viewing areas as above.
Winterton: Beach Road car park with adjacent public toilets and café. Please do not park on Beach Road itself as 24 hour access is required down this narrow lane.