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Natural History

Gray seal coloration varies from blackish with white specks and splotches to whitish with black markings. Generally, males are darker and females lighter. Pups are born white with a yellowish tint. Male gray seals have wrinkled necks, thicker necks and shoulders, and longer, broader, more rounded snouts than females. Male gray seals are much larger than females, weighing 375 to 880 pounds and growing to almost ten feet long. Females weigh between 220 and 572 pounds and reach lengths of up to seven and a half feet. The size difference between individuals can be even more striking than these averages: Some males weigh three times as much as some females. Seals living in Canadian waters grow the largest. Grey seal males are considerably larger than the females. Of the three populations, the Northwest Atlantic grey seals are the largest, with males measuring up to 2.3 m and weighing 300-350 kg, and females measuring up to 2.0 m and 150-200 kg. The Northeast Atlantic grey seals appear smaller; males average about 2m in length and weigh 170-310kg; females average 1.8 m and 103-180 kg. Male grey seals are characterized by the long, arched, horse-like, or "Roman", nose, heavy shoulders and thick, folded skin of the neck region. The female’s nose is similar but shorter and narrower. The coat of mature males is dark brown, grey or black with lighter blotches on the neck and flanks. The female is lighter in colour, with dark spots on a grey, tan or yellowish background. In the water, grey seals tend to be solitary or in small groups, but on land they are gregarious and can be found hauled out with harbour seals in areas where the two species coexist. Each population breeds at a different time and variation within the populations also exist. Pups weigh 11-20 kg at birth and are weaned at about 3 weeks of age. At this time, mating occurs between waiting males and receptive females. Grey seals feed on a wide variety of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods. The diet varies with location, season and prey availability. Fasting occurs during the breeding and moulting seasons.

The Northwest Atlantic population is estimated at 85,000-110,000 animals. In1990, the Northeast population consisted of about 102,000 grey seals, 85,000 of them found off the coast of Britain. The Baltic grey seal is thought to number between 2,000 and 3,000 animals.

In the past, grey seals have been killed for their skins, meat and oil in the UK, Iceland, Canada and the Baltic. Bounties and cull programs have been initiated by different countries over the last century. Today, grey seals are rarely used as a resource but are considered a pest in certain areas; culling initiatives and directed takes by fishers continue to be initiated because of perceived competition for commercial fish species, gear damage and as hosts of codworm (Pseudoterranova decipiens). Grey seals in the Baltic and White Sea appear to be adversely affected by pollution and entanglement in fishing gear.

The total for the East Atlantic stock is somewhere between 85,000 and 89,000. Bonner (1979) estimated the Baltic stock to consist of 5,000 animals. For the early 1980's Helle (1983) estimated the population at only 1,000-1,500. Halkka (1987) and Keränen and Soikkeli (1989) mention a populations size of the Baltic stock of 1,500 to 2,000 animals. Helle (pers. comm.) estimates the 1988 Baltic stock at about 2,000 seals. The 1995 Baltic population was estimated to consist of 5,300 seals (Halkka, pers. comm.) The world population of the grey seal is probably between 120,000 and 124,000. The West and East Atlantic stocks are increasing. The Baltic stock has shown a marked decrease, but seems to be recovering again. Exploitation

The grey seal populations in Scotland and Canada are regulated because of the codworm problem. In the United Kingdom on average 1,000-1,500 pups have been taken annually.