Seal pup census carried out by flying drone over Farne Islands

An annual seal census at one of Britain’s most important colonies has had to be carried out from the air due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Social distancing and furlough have meant National Trust rangers have not been staying on the Farne Islands, in the North Sea, where in normal years they monitor the wildlife.

So the trust brought in a drone operator to film the islands, just off the Northumberland coast, and experts will then count the pups to monitor the population of grey seals.

In recent years, numbers have been rising and early indications are that a record 3,000 pups could be born this season, up from 2,800 last year.

Globally, the Atlantic grey is one of the rarest seal species and is a protected sea mammal.

There are around 300,000 worldwide, with some 40% living in British and Irish waters.

The Farne Islands are home to one of England’s largest colonies.

Normally, the pups are counted individually by rangers walking carefully through the colony and marking them with a harmless vegetable dye to indicate they have been recorded.

But Covid-19 meant fewer rangers could safely stay together on the islands in their limited accommodation miles out to sea, and the National Trust has also furloughed staff.

Seals and pups on the Farne Islands
Seals and pups on the Farne Islands

National Trust ranger Harriet Reid said: “Due to the coronavirus crisis, we haven’t been able to live on the islands this year, which we normally do between March and December.

“This has meant we’ve been unable to carry out our annual seal pup count on the ground.

“Working with licensed conservation specialists to capture drone images and footage gives us an excellent view of the islands, and, from the clear images, we can count the total numbers of seal pups on each island.

“Following growth in numbers over the last five years, we’re hopeful for another good year for the Atlantic grey seal population.”

Drone pilot Ritchie Southerton has previously helped with the count but this is the first time the survey has been done by air alone.

He said: “From the pictures I have been getting already, this is going to be an amazing year for the seal pups.

“It’s brilliant getting to help the National Trust, coming to the Farne Islands, it’s absolutely amazing.”