Seal of approval
19 April, 2013
As I was on holiday last week Elaine Clarke kindly agreed to write this weeks offering. For those that have not had the pleasure of meeting Elaine, Elaine along with Sandra, is one of the Historic Scotland rangers on Orkney.
They are lovely friendly people and a highlight of any visit to Orkney is one of their tours around the Ring of Brodgar or the Standing Stones of Stenness. (Before I hand you over to Elaine just to mention some news from Ian Lewis, the ranger at Linlithgow, there is currently a rare Slavonian grebe displaying on Linlithgow Loch).
Seals always come near the top of lists of wildlife that visitors want to see. They are found around all of Scotland’s coastlines, but Orkney is an exceptionally good place to watch them. There are large populations of both grey and common seals – and if you’re lucky you might spot the rare bearded seal.
Seals spend most of their time at sea, and can swim thousands of miles during their lives in search of food. They come ashore for three reasons: to breed, to moult, and to rest between fishing expeditions.
Orkney is one of the most important breeding sites for common and grey seals. They breed at different times of the year: grey seals – the heavier of the two – give birth to their milky-white pups from October onwards. The pups remain on land for 18 to 21 days to suckle and put on fat for the cold winter at sea.
Common seals are smaller and have their pups around June and July. The pups can go to sea almost immediately. Despite their name, common seals are the rarer of the two. There are around 7,000 common seals in and around Orkney, compared to an estimated 25,000 grey seals.
All seals are inquisitive. If you stand on almost any shoreline in Orkney a seal will find you irresistibly interesting – especially if you whistle, sing or clap your hands. But despite their cute and gentle image seals are, of course, wild animals.
In Orkney and elsewhere, seals are the subject of local folk tales, in which they are often characterised as selkies. These mythical creatures would cast off their skins and take on human form. Thus transformed, the selkie-folk were said to dance on lonely stretches of moonlit shore, or bask in the sun on outlying skerries.
Their discarded skins held the power to return them to seal form, and therefore to the sea. If the sealskin was lost or stolen, the creature was doomed to remain in human form until its pelt could be recovered. So if disturbed while on shore, the selkie-folk would hastily snatch up their skins before rushing back to the safety of the sea.