Country diary: the cannibal seals

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A second dispatch from Orkney for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. It’s about the darker side of nature, and a murder mystery now solved: the dead seal pups and the cannibal bulls. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold.

Country diary: seal remains show nature is not sentimental

Scapa, Orkney: Along the beach, we find one prone shape, then another. Both are sleek and glossy – neither has a head

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Nothing better to blow the cobwebs away on a dull winter’s day than a bracing walk on the beach. We took the dog and set out across the sand at Scapa, the low midwinter sun casting moody shadows across the foreshore, each hollow and footprint picked out in charcoal, and the sky awash with pale hues: duck egg, buttermilk and apricot.

The sea was unsettled, spume sinking exhausted into the sand. Oil rigs and tankers standing sentinel to the south were silhouetted on the horizon in a hazy grey, blocky and strange as a fata morgana.

The dog scampered along the high-tide line, where bladderwrack and kelp lay tangled. We found her investigating a pane of mottled silver. It took me a moment to place it. Seal skin – a swatch of flank from a body half buried in the sand. And down the beach, another prone shape, then another. One pewter, with a dark patina, the second dappled like a horse. Neither had a head. It was strange to see them: their sleek, glossy shape, and then – neckline falling open like a bag – their contents pouring out upon the sand, thin pink streamers of flesh and the knotted rope of vertebrae.

This winter, there has been a spate of headless seals washing up along the north-east coast of Scotland. To begin with, they caused a minor panic. The 11 “mutilated” pups reported along the Dornoch Firth in December were initially assumed to have been shot and decapitated.

It’s not the first time such an alarm has been sounded. Back in 2010, scores of seals bearing distinctive lacerations washed up in Norfolk and east Scotland. The mystery was only solved in 2015 when the Seal Mammal Research Institute saw a bull seal attacking, then eating, seal pups. Cannibalism, this suggested, was far more common than realised.

These poor souls on the Scapa sands were perhaps victims of a seal serial killer too; or else they died of natural causes (as half of pups do, during their first winter) then lost their heads to the waves. Nature is not sentimental. So, if you find a dead seal, don’t panic. But do report it: the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme or, outside Scotland, to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme.

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