The road from Strangford to Ardglass is a beguiling one with changing views around every corner. Just a short distance from the town on the right amongst the trees is the ruined mansion of Isle o Valla. Here in early spring, you can watch the herons at their nests. This heronry was in occupation before 1892 and presumably is almost as old as the house.
Just about a mile out, you will notice a sign ‘Cloghy rocks Nature Reserve.’ Of all the 38 or so national nature reserves in Northern Ireland, this one has become a magnet for visitors during the summer months because it is a wonderful vantage point from which to watch one of the largest seal colonies in Ireland. The seals in question are the common seals, sometimes known as the sand or spotted seal. They are one of two species that breed in this country the other being the larger open coast grey seal.
The sheltered conditions and shallow waters around the County Down coast provide the ideal conditions favoured by this specially protected species. Any day, during the long summer months when the tide is receding, you will behold a wonderland of nature with up to 50 seals basking in the ‘pladdies’ or rocks just about 30 yards offshore, in postures of complete contentment, with curved bodies head and feet held delicately in the air with their back feet clasped together like a child in prayer, eyes opening and closing in intermittent sleep. Others may be uncomfortable with the heat and the flies heave their heavy bodies over the ridged rocks as they slither into the cold water of the Lough. The seals are warm-blooded they have six layers of blubber to insulate them from the chilly waters of the lough. Their tolerant and even inquisitive attitude to humans means they are often seen at quite close quarters without disturbing them one bit.
Up till 1987, the seal population had trebled over the previous decade but in the mid-’90s, the seals experienced the most direct threat to their existence. A virus now identified as a strain of canine distemper has caused some 12,000 common seals deaths in the British Isles and here at Strangford, the seal population has reduced by at least 40%. But like all viruses, it is sometimes nature way of thinning out the weak, the sick and the old, leaving behind a much healthier colony with built-in resistance to the virus. In 2009 the number of seals along the County Down coastline was still declining – the experts believe the decline is part of the natural cycle or maybe due to increased disturbance and the shortage of suitable prey for food. In 2009 (the time of writing) the Common seal population was approximately 250 adults, which produced on average 40 pups each season. They are born in early July and are able to swim immediately. This is a crucial time for the seal pups, vulnerable and they rely entirely on their mother for milk. In the early weeks of life, the white pup is never far from its mother and the ‘twin heads’ frolicking in the dark waters of the Lough can easily be seen from the shore and are a joy to watch.
The cool waters of Strangford Lough are a fridge full of treats but seals are big beasts with very big appetites especially when they have got little ones to feed. The lough is a seal highway, a waterway to the Irish Sea where they generally feed for there is not enough fish in the lough. A seal can eat two tons of fish a year; it can dive to a depth of 1200 feet and can stay underwater for a length of 28 minutes.
Strangford Lough, the biggest inlet in the British Isles is home to an exceptional variety of over 2,000 marine species and the largest breeding population of common seals in Ireland and many migrating birds from all over the world.