Grey seal pupping season in Orkney

Orkney is rich in marine life, with approximately 15% of Scotland’s seal population inhabiting the dramatic coastline. Grey seals (known in Orkney folklore as selkies) are a common sight in Orkney, with their haunting howls echoing through the cliffs at this time of year. October is a very special time for grey seals because this is when they start to pup. Chubby splodges of bright white fur can be spotted along the beaches, take a closer look with your binoculars and you will see that these splodges are actually incredibly cute seal pups.

Grey seal female with pup, RSPB images

Common (also known as Harbour) seals pup earlier on in the year, around June/July time. Compared to grey seals these pups have very different starts to their lives. Common seal pups moult their fur while still in the womb and can swim almost instantly after birth, whereas grey seal pups have a thick layer of white fur which they must moult before taking their first proper dip. It is crucial that grey seal pups spend enough time on land suckling from their mother. This will help them triple in weight over a short period and allow for a thick layer of blubber to form, which is essential to survive the cold Orkney winters.

Grey seal mum and pup, RSPB images

You may at times see grey seal pups on the beaches without their mothers, don’t worry this is perfectly normal. The mothers will leave their pups to go hunting, do not approach or touch a lone seal pup as this might cause a mother to abandon them. If you find a pup that looks poorly or skinny, there may be something wrong and someone might have to intervene, however please call trained professionals (BDMLR). Checking seal pups is a risky business, and if not done properly can result in a very nasty bite. As well as the risk to yourself disturbance to either pup or mother can have fatal consequences, resulting from pups not being able to suckle enough, abandonment and entering the water before they are ready.

Grey seals with pup on beach, photo by Wild Orkney Walks

Watching seals go about their business is very enjoyable, they all have their own personalities and watching them interact with each other can give you a real insight into their lives. Their characters and playfulness demonstrate how the selkie folklore stories came about. But how do you tell the difference between grey and common seals?

Grey vs Common Seals

  • Grey seals are bigger than common seals
  • The eyes of a common seal are closer together than a grey seal
  • Grey seals have a long elongated ‘roman’ nose whereas common seals have concave short nose. I explain this as grey seals are more like a Labrador and common seals are more like a King Charles spaniel
  • - common seals have a v shaped nose, very much like a dog’s nose, whereas grey seals noses are more like two parallel slits.
  • Common seal pups are usually born in June/July, have a brown coat and are ready to swim
  • Grey seal pups are born much later in the year (around October time on Orkney), usually with a white furry coat and it takes a few weeks before they are ready to swim


Grey seals, RSPB images


Common seals, RSPB images


Disturbance and why does it matter?

Disturbance is a big threat to seal populations across the country. Although it may look like a little bit of disturbance won’t do them any harm, after all they are just going into the sea like they do every day, however it can be very dangerous for our wonderful selkies. Seals haul out at sites to digest food, to moult fur, to rest, to feed their pups and to avoid danger.  Although you may only witness one act of disturbance this could be 1 of 20 times those seals have been disturbed that day. Which can result in underfed pups, distressed pups and mum, injury when seals are trying to flee, irregular thermoregulation, tired adult seals and changes to behavioural traits. All of which can put our globally important populations at risk. Under the Marine Scotland Act 2010 since 2017 it is a criminal offence to intentionally disturb seals.

Grey seal mum with pup, photo by Wild Orkney Walks

What can you do to help?

We are very lucky in Orkney to have so many seals, so what can you do to help these beautiful creatures? It’s easy:

  • keep your distance (stay at least 50 metres away)
  • view the seals from a safe spot with binoculars
  • If you think you have spotted a seal in danger call BDMLR to report it
  • keep your dog on a lead around seal haul out sites
  • carry out a beach clean - even taking away just a few bits of litter every time you visit makes a difference!
  • please spread the word to give seals space during this vulnerable time

One of the best ways we can all help is by sharing our knowledge, often disturbance occurs due to lack of understanding rather than malicious intent. If we share our appreciation for these wonderful creatures and discuss what disturbance means to them, this will help people better understand and hopefully be more mindful when out walking. If you witness individuals repeatedly or intentionally disturbing seals, please report them to Police Scotland on 101 and ask to speak to a wildlife crimes officer.

Grey seal pup, RSPB images

Have a go activity

Explore the coastlines where seals can be seen regularly and watch them without disturbing them. Get to know their personalities and habits then have a go at writing your own selkie short story using a maximum of 500 words. Get inspired by what you see at the seal haul out sites and let your imagination run away!  If you would like to, please share your stories with us by messaging our Facebook page or emailing us on

Look out for the Orkney storytelling festival this week, for 2020 it has moved online and there will be a lot of wildlife and folk tales being shared throughout the festival. Just the thing to get your creative juices flowing!

Useful contact information :


Telephone: 01825 765546


Telephone: 03000 999 999