A seal sign has been added to the towpath at Strand on the Green, at the point where it joins Thames Rd at Strand End. The sign lets passersby know that there may be seals on the foreshore and the public should give them their space. The advice is:
Do keep well away – use your camera or binoculars to see them
Do keep quiet so the seals can’t hear us
Do keep downwind so the seals can’t smell us
Do keep out of sight so the seals can’t see us
Do take dogs under control on leads
Do take litter home
Image above: ‘Freddie’ the seal; photograph Charlie Haynes
The UK has both grey seals and common seals, which have been seen more and more in the tidal Thames in recent years as the river water has got cleaner. Seals need to rest on land to digest their food, socialise and feed their pups, so it’s important not to disturb them. What counts as ‘disturbance’ is any ‘change in the animal’s natural behaviour which has been caused by people’. It ‘interrupts their rest, causes them stress, wastes their energy and can result in injury or death’, the sign says.
If a seal is looking directly at you, it’s noticed you, so you have disturbed it. The advice is to back off to avoid it moving away. ‘If a seal makes a big splash crash dive it shows they are distressed’ and they can injure themselves if we scare them into the water. If a person goes and strokes a seal pup, the human scent can put the mother off feeding the pup. The sign warns:
Never get close to seals
Never fly drones near seals
Never feed wild seals
Never scare seals or put pups into the water
Never copy the bad behaviour of others
Never take a seal selfie
Images above: Rescuers trying to save Freddie; photographs by Runa Bousquet
Signs paid for by money raised after the death of ‘Freddie’
The sign has been paid for by money raised after the death of ‘Freddie’, the seal which was attacked by a dog on a slipway at Hammersmith in March and subsequently died of its injuries. The attack made national news as a passing vet and other volunteers fought to save it.
The woman whose dog attacked the seal was outed in the press and condemned for not keeping her dog under control, especially as Freddie had become a regular sight hauled out on the shore, so local people knew he was likely to be there. After initially trying to keep her name out of the media, she subsequently made a public apology.
Mary Tester, the local representative of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue organisation, who was one of those involved in getting the injured Freddie to South Essex Wildlife hospital, told The Chiswick Calendar she had approached Hammersmith, Richmond and Hounslow councils for permission to put up signs along the river bank and only Hounslow had agreed.
Image above: Seal pup hauls out on a paddleboard; photograph Active 360
After the attack on Freddie, a group of river users formed calling themselves ‘Sealwatch’, which included Mary, Paul Hyman, owner of Active 360 paddleboarding at Kew Bridge, Alison Debney, a scientist with the Zoological Society of London, lobbyist Felicity Burch, Wanda Bodnar from the Thames Estuary Partnership and film director Patrick Schulenberg, who lives on a houseboat on the Thames.
Paddleboarders often come across seals who seem to want to play, but may just mistake paddleboards for a useful bit of dry land on which to haul out.
READ ALSO: Playful seal pup leans to paddleboard
As they use the river regularly, the members of Sealwatch are well placed to spot seals and know their habits – particularly where they like to haul out. They planned signs for both ends of the tow path at Strand on the Green – at Kew Bridge and at Strand End and would like to have put up signs in Hammersmith and Barnes as well.
The initiative has had cross party support from LB Hounslow. The Chiswick Calendar spoke to Leader of Hounslow Council, Cllr Steve Curran when the idea was first mooted, and he said straight away that the council would support it. Riverside ward Cllr Gabriella Giles has been promoting it.
Image above: Freddie; photograph Mary Tester
Lack of interest from Richmond and Hammersmith & Fulham Councils
Mary Tester of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue told us she twice approached the Leader of LB Richmond, Cllr Gareth Roberts, to put signs up on the Richmond side of the river, but got no response. When she approached Richmond Cllr Rita Palmer, she got this answer:
‘We believe the towpath is not a suitable location for posters educating the public about marine species’.
At LB Hammersmith and Fulham she told us she tried the Cabinet Member for the environenment, Cllr Wesley Harcourt and Cllr Alexandra Sanderson, but neither replied.
Since the presence of seals in the Thames has been tracked, from 2013 onwards, scientists have noted a 50% increase in numbers. There are also occasional porpoises which find their way up river and each year for the past four years a whale has ventured up the Thames as well. In May it ended badly for a baby Minke whale which got stuck at Teddington Lock and had to be euthanised.
READ ALSO: Whale stuck at Teddington Weir put down
Mary told The Chiswick Calendar the British Divers Marine Life Rescue were also working with Tracey Crouch MP to try and amend animal welfare laws to include disturbance to seals and particularly attacks by dogs. They are hoping seals will be specifically included in the programme of new legislation introduced in the Queen’s Speech this autumn.
Image above: Seal sign at Strand on the Green
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