It’s about 10 years since I made my only visit to Donna Nook on the Lincolnshire coast. What a spectacle it was: many hundreds of young and old grey seals doing everything that seals do on a huge expanse of open sandy beach – and approachable to boot. The popularity of the site with photographers – from home and abroad – has continued to grow over the years peaking around 1500 during the pupping season of 2009.
At that point the site managers, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, felt it necessary to ask people not to venture on to the beach. They did this in response to a rapid, unexplained rise in pup mortality in the preceding breeding seasons. While their evidence was largely circumstantial, increased pup deaths and more people on the beach seemed closely correlated. In 2010 there was a drop in mortality of 50% over the immediately preceding years – and a decrease in visitors to the beach by 80%.
Only 80%? This request for voluntary restraint was, after all, to protect a sensitive breeding colony. Yet 314 people according to LWT statement “refused to cooperate.” The statement, worringly, continues, “All but two of these people went on to the beach with the sole purpose of photographing the seals. Of those, the majority were with organised commercial groups, member of photographic clubs or professional photographers from overseas.”
I am considerably more naive about the conduct of other “nature photographers” than I realised. Whatever happened to “putting the subject first”? Even more worrying is the fact that commercial operators are amongst the main culprits. Even if motivated only by self interest, they must realise that the mould from one rotten apple quickly spreads to others – and that they too may be excluded from good sites in future.
Let’s be devil’s advocate here and recognise that once you’ve taken the booking and entered into a contract with the client you have to stick to it. And let’s assume the request to keep clear of the beach came after you’d taken the booking: that’s tricky from a commercial (although not an ethical) point of view in 2010. Yet in 2011 several operators, ignoring the statistics and claiming that these wild seals are somehow “habituated” were still advertising tours. Coincident with the publication of this post, these operators have now stopped.