It was one of the mysteries of summer 2010: what was responsible for the strange deaths of grey seals off the picturesque north Norfolk coast of England, many with horrific “corkscrew” or “spiral” cut marks? New research suggests wind farms were not to blame, despite some suggestions at the time.
Dozens of seals had been found washed up on England’s east coast with the distinctive wound pattern. Reports said some 38 dead seals were found at Blakeney Point, 12 miles from the Sheringham Shoal wind farm then under construction.
A number of possible causes were proposed, but one of the top theories discussed at the time was whether the seals could have been caught up in the propellers of the increased boat traffic to and from local harbors as developers put up the turbines offshore.
Sheringham Shoal development group Scira, owned by Norwegian energy companies Statoil and Statkraft, rejected the accusations. There were no indications, they said, that their equipment could have caused injuries such as those inflicted on the seals.
And the timing was wrong: the seal deaths began in December 2009, while work on the wind farm began in March 2010. Seals with similar damage had also been found along the coasts of Scotland and Canada, Scira said.
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Nevertheless, the police were involved, and joined monitoring trips, with observers using equipment to ensure animals were not in the way of construction activity taking place.
The Scottish Government announced Wednesday, however, that shipping may not be to blame. In fact, the seals themselves could be responsible.
Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochlead said: “We now have important evidence that natural predatory behaviour is likely to be the main cause, rather than ship propeller injuries as we first thought.”
Researchers caught a grey seal in the act, killing five young seals and leaving them with the spiral marks. Graphic photos in the full report leave little room for doubt who was responsible in at least some of the cases observed.
The report argues that “a similar mechanism” is strongly suggested to be “responsible for the majority of reported corkscrew mortalities in UK waters, including those seen in Norfolk.”
For the shipping industry, and offshore wind farm developers, the findings may be welcome news, showing that big business is not always to blame for environmental damage.
Indeed, reports last year showed that seals may actually be attracted to offshore wind farms as a hunting ground, with the offshore infrastructure acting as an artificial reef leading to local increases in the number of fish and crustaceans. However, whether this was increasing the overall amount of food available, or just concentrating existing resources, remained open to debate.