Country diary: only the adolescent seals still hang out here

Hilbre Islands, Wirral: Visitors hoping to glimpse grey seals will find only a few stragglers. The rest are off to their breeding grounds

The Hilbre Islands may be small but they demand attention. The diminutive archipelago encompassing Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre (pronounced locally like a mound of soft French cheese) sits a mile or so from the shore of West Kirby and Red Rocks. But anyone wishing to visit must pay attention to the tide and the route. The islands are accessible when the tide is out, but you must take care to avoid the treacherous mud and follow the trail to stop at each island in turn.

Plenty of visitors are ahead of me on the walk today, the rippled sienna sands are covered in myriad boot marks and pawprints. I get a face full of drizzle on the way out – Talacre across the Dee estuary is obscured by cloud. Fortunately, it’s easing off by the time I reach Middle Eye and, curled in close to the layers of red Bunter sandstone, I get my binoculars out for a glimpse of the grey seals.

Families walking to Hilbre Island
‘The islands are accessible when the tide is out.’ Photograph: Colin Weston/Getty

At their peak in July, there were 400 of the mottled grey lumps crowded together on the Hoyle sandbank to the west of the islands. You could hear them howling their disapproval at neighbours that were too close for comfort, and a handful had ditched the scrum for the surf. Today I can hear only the whimpering of wading birds and, up on the main island, the Friends of Hilbre volunteers have counted just 52 seals.

The majority have already been tempted away to their breeding grounds and only stragglers remain. Both sexes become sexually mature from age three, but males are unlikely to successfully hold territory until after their eighth year. While they develop, the adolescents stay in the rich waters of Liverpool Bay to feed and haul out on this sandy safe haven.

Seals on sand bank
‘The majority of seals have been tempted away to their breeding grounds.’ Photograph: Pat Bennett/Alamy

I strike out to the tumbledown jetty of the old lifeboat station, hoping to spy a seal head bobbing in the waves, but instead I find more than a dozen pale-bellied brent geese, all the way over from Arctic Canada. Velvety black heads and dark beaks nuzzle through the weeds covering the rocky outcrop. At Hilbre, the baton has clearly passed from seal spotters to birdwatchers for the season.


Ella Davies

The GuardianTramp

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