Good People Doing Amazing Stuff

Sal Bennett, St Mary's Island, Seals. And Curlew
March 2, 2023

If you were tasked with building a team that was going to carry out work vitally important to the ecology, environment and conservation of a ‘place’, there is a woman in the North East who would be your first pick. Her name is Sal Bennett.

Like many hundreds of thousands of us, St Mary’s Lighthouse and Island on the North Tyneside coast is writ large in Sal’s psyche. A dedicated visitor for many years, she became increasingly alarmed at how our own love of this place was presenting significant disturbance to the native wildlife. Unfortunately, a decade ago there was no organisation or team to join – so she could do her bit. That might signal the end of the story for many of us – but for Sal it was the beginning: With a team of amazing volunteers, she has created St Mary’s Island Wildlife Conservation Society – an organisation that is now crucial in feeding into environmental ‘best practice’ across the UK.

On a recent blustery Sunday, I pulled on my Mag North waterproof to catch-up with Sal and the team on duty at the island – and tried at every opportunity to swing the conversation to Curlew…


Inevitably, I start by asking Sal what represented the initial ‘call-to-action’ for her?

Sal: “I became more and more aware of all the disturbances happening, although I didn’t really think of them as disturbances...I was just aware really that as soon as the seals came out, [of the water] what we now call the 'Seal Charge' would occur. Someone would shout SEAL and everybody would run towards it.

“And so most people's experience of a seal was either its bottom as it ran away, or a frightened, poorly seal that didn’t move and that was perceived as a seal that wasn’t bothered. Anyway, I started to learn more about the seals and about the wildlife and I became convinced we should do something to leave this space for the wildlife...I was silly enough to do it, because nobody else was.”

Sal presents as an ecological expert, so you’d be forgiven for assuming her ‘day job’ is in  a related field – but she's quick to confirm she has an office job - and not one connected with the natural world.

Sal: “I suppose it’s an awareness really that we’re very entitled as a species and we’re not very careful about the impact that we’re having.”

This ancient place is cut-off from the mainland by the tide twice a day - and is historically as well as ecologically important. A particularly treacherous area of coastline, Trinity House commissioned the building of a lighthouse in the 19th century, on a headland that first recorded a structure present in Medieval times: a tiny Chapel built by monks – and dedicated to St Helen, (Roman Emperor Constantine’s Mum – who lived down the A19 in York).

The island was strategically important in both World Wars and the lighthouse and the environmental importance of St. Mary’s Island was recognised in 1974 when it was designated as a conservation area. The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1984 and now operates as a museum and visitor centre. Grade II listed building status came in 2012.

M & M

Sal explains: “When you get a local nature reserve, what happens is the council will ask for that designation and the designation is given by Natural England (as it is now). This was actually one of the first local nature reserves to be set up. You can see there was all this ambition, but it just disappeared completely between that time and when I started coming here as a visitor. I would have been happier just joining another group, but there wasn’t one. So, it was either walk away – leave the problem as it was and probably not really want to come back – or realise something was wrong and try and do something.

Initially there was just Sal and a couple of other like-minded members of the local community: “We would just go and speak to people, individual people, who were out all over the rocks and we would ask if they wouldn’t mind giving the seals some space. I took myself on a massive crash course on seal behaviour, because I knew nothing about seals. I did quite a lot of research so I could explain to people the detrimental impact it has on each individual animal every time it’s disturbed. So, we would just talk to people and we would just ask them to leave a distance and then we made a few little signs that we used to put around, but it has always been face-to-face engagement that we have used, right from the beginning.”

And how was that intervention received?

“Initially some people received it really well and they, I think, were the people who were obviously uncomfortable about the situation anyway, and so they were really supportive. But with others I would say we weren’t popular in the beginning at all. There was definitely a sense of entitlement to be out on the rocks and it didn’t matter that there was wildlife there. People started to slowly start to realise [that preventing disturbance was important] because very quickly, as we soon as we got the footfall to drop a little bit, the seal numbers started to increase almost immediately.”

Grey Seals At St Mary's

Sal and the team set about collecting data to reinforce the public’s changing behaviour on seal numbers. Using previously used academic and ecological methods, valuable scientific monitoring was underway on the island.

“We did a couple of reports which was quite scary. We’ve always been supported by Cornwall Seal Group, who then became Cornwall Seal Research Trust [now known as the Seal Research Trust]. Sue Sayer who heads the organisation up, has just been awarded an MBE for her work with seals. Again, a volunteer, you know, she’s inspired people everywhere to kind of just do what you can.

“I suppose I hadn’t really thought properly what it would involve and how many years it would go on for, but that’s just the way it is. It was never a thought-out plan, it was just kind of an idea really."

Initially known as St. Mary’s Seal Watch, the collection of concerned individuals operated loosely for over a year before ‘becoming’ a group.

“We became a group because people kind of saw us as a group. Other people made us a group. So, we thought we better have a name actually – and what people called us was the seal watchers, so we were known as St. Mary’s Seal Watch. That was our name, before changing to St Mary’s Island Wildlife Conservation Society, because it wasn’t just about seals and it’s not just about watching, it’s about all the wildlife really. Because what’s always been really important, and I suppose for me that’s always been the thing, is that it’s about creating space for wildlife.

Members of the public regularly ask about the group’s physical interventions, but with a belief that the wildlife knows best how to look after itself, there is very much a hands-off approach. Sal is clear that all the wildlife require is for us to allow it space to be able to do just that.

And the rigorous study and data collection continues:

“We carry out bi-monthly, high tide bird counts. (When the tide is right as obviously, we need the tide to come in at the right time of day.) We still do seal numbers every day. We have a map which is gridded so it’s not just the overall seal numbers it’s how they use the island and any direct impact that has.

A Sleeping Seal and Oystercatchers

“We’ve always looked at any problem and then tried to find a solution. In a few weeks all the seals are going to start to moult, and when they do they will stay out of the water for days on end if they can. When the seals come closer to the buildings and viewing areas, [to avoid the incoming tide] the noise has much more of an impact, so that’s the time when we really need to focus on trying to keep the noise down.

“In the summer, the seals move to the skirts of the island. They do that every year, and it roughly coincides with when all the water sports start. So, it changes from the most prolific disturbance source being noise of people up here [on the island], to being paddleboarders, kayakers, things in the water. We’ve not quite got a handle on that yet. Face-to-face engagement is our tool and we can’t use that in the water.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about seal interaction in the water which is really only just now being looked at always used to be said that you couldn’t disturb a seal in the water. From all of the hours and hours of watching seals, I started to think that’s not true. Seals can be disturbed in the water. If disturbance is an animal changing its behaviour because of the presence of a person, you absolutely see that in the water. Every time a seal swims up to a kayak or a paddleboard, that’s not what it was doing before you arrived on your paddleboard. So, it is a disturbance.

Education is an ongoing task for the group. Their face-to-face engagement with visitors to the island has made a massive difference, but for the thirty-seven volunteers there are constantly new challenges.

There is also a genuine commitment from the local authority (North Tyneside Council) to change the perception of St Mary’s Island from a place for recreation to its importance as a nature reserve. Much of the North Tyneside coastline is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area, in addition to being a Ramsar site, (internationally important wetland).

With layer upon layer of ecological designation to it, this area of the North East has the most incredible stretch of coastline, but it is also densely populated. Securing a sustainable balance between the needs of people and those of the natural world is a challenge globally – not just locally.

A seal colony will have approximately a 100km transit range, but some of the seals which haul-out at St Mary’s have been confirmed as coming from as far as the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth and others have headed north from Norfolk. The society has even recorded an animal that had been released from a rehabilitation centre in France.

The St Mary’s seals are part of the colony that use Coquet Island, and the Farne’s – in Northumberland. Tagged seals are being tracked and their movements recorded.

There has been a sustained improvement in seal numbers over the last decade – and while that makes naturalists cheer, the fishing community tend to be less positive. Although fish stocks must be healthy to support a thriving seal colony, fishermen and women see their presence as a direct threat to livelihood. In the North-East there was an annual seal cull until the mid-seventies. In March 2021, the Netsman’s Defence – or Licence, which allowed fisherman to shoot seals if they interfered with nets, was also revoked.

Away from the fishing industry, recreational anglers can also be sometimes resistant to change.

Sal explains: “I think the one thing that is shared with the fishermen is that they’re not going to catch many fish if there’s lots of seals in the water, so best to keep them on the land. You know, so a lot of anglers now know there’s a lot of seals here so they won’t come here. Any serious issues or concerns are dealt with by the Operation Seabird team, which is a Police and Marine Management Organisation and RSPB initiative, trying to tackle all kinds of coastal wildlife disturbance.

“To alert paddlers and other water-sport enthusiasts to potential issues - In Scilly and Pembrokeshire now, they have marker buoys that are put out, in the same way that we put out signs and this is what we’d like to do. But it’s slow progress, because you’re talking about bringing something in that people have never seen before. We’re trying to find a way that we can inform people in kayaks and on SUPs of the safe distance [from the shoreline].

A new threat – and one perhaps affecting the bird population more directly – is the popularity of the location for drone photography and videography. Drone operators are often unaware of the impact their devices have on birds. To a bird, a drone is no different to any other predator. There is increasing evidence of birds being repeatedly flushed from roosting or feeding by operators hoping to secure a shot of the island from the air. Sal acknowledges that drone technology can be really useful, but is concerned that their use for simple recreation in sensitive places like St Mary’s, is becoming problematic.

The Causeway At Low Tide

So, there’s been seismic change on St Mary’s for the seal population. But before Christmas, I’d headed over the causeway looking for Curlew, and had encountered the famous Mel and Maurice, two of the society’s dedicated volunteers - and I’m anxious to talk about waders…

Sal obliges: “We get loads of curlews here, particularly at this time of year, because we get all of the ones that come over from Eastern Europe to winter here. We’ve had two this year that have been ringed curlews, again, you know, I’m not all for...I don’t massively personally like ringing and tagging, but we know one was born and ringed in Estonia and the other one right up in the north of Norway.

So what percentage of the waders that you’ve got here are we going to see in our own uplands later on in the year?

The majority of the wading birds at St Mary’s today won’t simply move inland to our uplands to breed. Sal confirms: “Most of the ones that we get here that breed here will have moved south. So, it’s kind of everything just moves a little bit. We’ll get a lot of the ones that are not of breeding age that will stay because they only return to breeding grounds once they get to breeding age, which is not necessarily within their first year. But the numbers will start to drop right off of the waders, some of them obviously will go inland, I couldn't tell you how many that is, but most of the ones that you would get on the moors here in the North of England will have moved further south to breed here. The ones that winter here will have moved from further north.

“Then just as all the Waders go, we start to hear the first of the Terns. We have a massive colony of terns…Northumberland has five species of tern that breed here and this island is really important, although it’s not a breeding ground. Not everything is about an animal breeding. It’s got to be well enough to migrate, it’s got to be well enough to breed, it’s got to have places to feed, it’s got to have places where it can then teach it’s young to feed, so it’s much bigger than just where they breed. The first ones will be the Sandwich Terns. They’ll arrive first, and they do all their courtship stuff all over the island.

“That’s early April really, so just as all the sounds of the waders start to die off, you start to hear the terns coming in. They’ll kind of pass by us, because Coquet Island [one of the most important tern breeding grounds in the UK] is only 14 miles from here.

There is a very real concern for returning numbers this coming year in all species because of Avian Influenza. Sal and the team are constantly finding a variety of seabirds, waders and waterfowl that have succumbed.

Today, in this ancient land and seascape, there is some of the most innovate, inclusive and important work being carried out by the duty team of volunteers: Dylan, Janet, Doreen, Gill, Toni, Gerald, Jeannie and Sal. In addition to care, conservation and protection, what they’re also doing is helping us to understand that we’re all part of something bigger. That is invaluable.

The Inspirational Sal Bennett

And with these final words, Sal leaves me to head back across the causeway:

“If we want this, even on a really selfish level, if we want to bring our kids out or whatever, if you want to do this, there’s a price you’ve got to pay. You’ve got to be willing to watch from here [the viewing areas around the lighthouse structure], much as you might want to go out there [the rocks] and get closer, you can’t. Because we can’t have it both ways – there's no cake and eat it situation, it’s one or the other and fortunately most people don’t want to lose this…I knew that. I knew that right from the beginning, because I’m not any different from anyone else, you know.”

St Mary's Island Wildlife Conservation Society

St Mary's Lighthouse and Visitor Centre, Whitley Bay, NE26 4RS