Photographers inadvertently kill seals at Donna Nook.
Last year, I published an article in Outdoor Photography magazine in response to several visits to Donna Nook. Each visit left me more disillusioned than the last until the picture in my mind was not one of an idyllic seal colony but one of hundreds of photographers scrambling over each other and, almost, their subjects to get the shot. I witnessed very little field craft and even less regard for seal welfare. Even the most casual observer could have seen that the status quo was damaging to the seals. I decided to investigate.
I spoke to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust's wardens, seal scientists, experienced wildlife photographers, and even the RAF to determine whether photographers were having an observable effect upon seal survival rates. The answer was a definitive "probably". Seal pup mortality rates had steadily climbed for four years, strongly correlating with photographer numbers. The scientists even had a convincing explanation of why; however, there was no proof other factors were not involved.
The result of my research was this article in Outdoor Photography, strongly urging photographers to stay away:
Fast-forward a year and there are more facts on the table. Throughout last year's pupping season, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust adopted a strong new stance to deal with photographers. Where they previously suggested photographers stayed away, they now strongly requested they do so. Their appeal even made the BBC News. Visitor numbers dropped by 80% from 1500 to just 314, all but two of whom were photographers.
The result surprised even me. An 80% drop in photographer numbers resulted in a 50% drop in seal pup mortality - a huge drop. Fewer seal pups died than they had in seven years. The wardens are not aware of any other change that could have caused this, especially considering it happened despite one of the coldest winters on record hitting hardest exactly when seals are at their most vulnerable. It is not a statistically significant, repeatable scientific experiment, but it is as close as we will ever get.
This is undoubtedly a good news story - fewer seals are dying - but it does raise a few questions. How many other sites are similarly affected by photographers? Will this happen at other pupping grounds in the future? Who are the 312 photographers who ignored the Trust's plea? Most, the trust says, were either foreign photographers or photography workshop members. Surely workshop leaders should lead by example and cancel their tours, especially since they have mostly been contacted by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.
Not all sites are as cared for as Donna Nook is by the Trust. We can only hope Donna Nook was an isolated case but something tells me it is not. As wildlife photographers, even self-proclaimed conservation photographers, we must be responsible for our own actions and not be afraid to speak out about others'. We owe it to ourselves, our images, and our subjects: without them, we would be nothing.
In that spirit, here are the names of the main Donna Nook photography workshop leaders I know of:
I have emailed all three photographers and, if they respond, will post their replies on this blog.
Lastly, it goes without saying, I urge you, I plead with you, not to visit Donna Nook this year.
NB. This article refers only to Donna Nook's beach colony. Human activity (including photography) has no affect upon seals at the dunes colony. The dunes colony is a fabulous spectacle and one that provides huge scope for photography. I would not hesitate to recommend anyone visits - just avoid weekends!