Lambay Island is host to Ireland’s two species of seal; from time immemorial the Grey or Atlantic Seal (Halichoerus grypus) and more latterly the Common (less so) or Harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). As Gaeilge: Ron mor agus Ron breacach.
Marine mammals, both species are found around the Irish coastline and protected by law (1976 and 2002 Wildlife Acts, E.U. Habitats Directive et al). Lambay is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and in effect a sanctuary for seals and other wildlife.
These marine mammals are torpedo shaped, heavily blubbered, have closable nostrils and eyes, sensitive vibrissae, flippered fore and hind limbs and are superbly adapted to their marine environment, while umbilically attached to land for breeding, birthing and moulting. And of course Yes, they have a fishy diet and as apex predators are the most economic and efficient indicators of the health of our marine environment and fish stocks. Creatures of two worlds and site faithful they give rise to myth and legend (ref. Selkies, Court of King Seal, off Lambay) and enthral the scientifically curious.
Common seals are largely residential with little inward or outward migration, pup in mid summer and pups are off with the tide , nursing and feeding alongside the mother till weaned. The Lambay group is probably growing from N.I. and Dublin Bay at limit of their feeding range. The Irish Sea is their Province.
The larger or Great Grey Seals are more nomadic, though site faithful (Lambay line), deeper divers, Autumn/Winter breeders, nursing their pups in isolated bays and caves above the storm surges and often protected by cliffs from the rear. Habitat disturbance is their greatest threat from land and habituating to human presence, if not threatened. The young are snow white in their birth coat or lanugo (ref. Lanugo the film), spend their first three weeks ashore or in the shallows, tripling in weight on the world’s richest milk before moulting and going to sea.
The first known archaeological remains of Grey Seals are from middens on Dalkey Island and Dublin Bay still boasts a mixed colony of Greys and Commons like Lambay.
Grey Seals are the world’s first protected wild species, arising from the efforts of one Major Hesketh Vernon Pritchard concerned for the population, plight and future of seal mothers and pups hunted off Scotland. A century ago with colleagues and friends and Charles Lyell M.P. they drafted and Parliament passed unopposed the Protection of Grey Seal Act 1914. Modern conservation turned on this and Grey Seals were it’s driver. According to whims and priorities of conservation many other species at times compete for this iconic status but it belongs to the Great Grey Seal, popularised at that time by Sir Ray Lankester, curator of the world’s greatest natural history museum in his column in the Press, Science from my Easy Chair.
Charles Rotschild, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves(1912) in reports identified the importance of the Bull Island (now a UNESCO reserve) and today it remains important for seals and there are initiatives to extend the reserve from Lambay to Dalkey Island.
Lambay has a central role in the protection of Grey Seals and other wildlife, is a strategic outpost of Dublin Bay and has been central to the survival of seals (shot for bounty prior to 1976) and other wildlife in the Irish Sea. In this regard, they may even have disappeared from much of the Irish Sea but for the protection of Lambay. It is likely Revelstokes and their forebears, pre-1914 and since, all contributed to the conservation of the Great Grey Seal.
Brendan Price EuroProBiol, Irish Seal Sanctuary