In the bleak midwinter, Orkney is surprisingly busy with wildlife. Starlings murmurate over the old Stromness pier every night before flying down to roost in its struts. Geese gather in their hundreds in the hollows between hills. And, down by the water’s edge, seals have been hauling out on to the rocky strands to give birth.
A few weeks ago we visited Windwick, South Ronaldsay, to see this year’s crop of pups: the foreshore was crowded with cow seals feeding their fluffy, wet-eyed babies. One or two bulls waited in the shallows nearby, rising and falling with the waves, or seen in silhouette like submarines.
One mother sat up to her belly in water, watching her pup yelp for her, seeming to will it forward into the surf. It cried and cried. She waited, eyes fixed on it, then gently rolled over in the foam, as if to demonstrate how fun it might be to swim. It was a charming afternoon. So I have returned to Windwick to check on their progress.
At first the beach looked empty. Was I too late? But, craning over the cliff, I finally located a pocket of holdouts. At first I felt a flash of horror: there were bodies strewn over rocks and rotting heaps of kelp. Some sleek and grey marl, others stained a nicotine yellow.
All was deathly still, like the aftermath of some terrible battle. But then one flipper paddled the air, another corpse twitched awake, and the whole scene came to life.
These are the awkward teenagers of the seal world: in the absence of their mothers they now shed their baby clothes, scratch themselves on rocks, and live off their fat reserves until – eventually – they must leave the beach to begin their seagoing careers.
Until then, they will lie around, filling the air with Wookie-like wails. They haul themselves up on to the land, are found on roads and in fields, and generally get under people’s feet.
Fifteen per cent of the world’s grey seal population breeds here on Orkney in the winter months. It’s a privilege to see it. But I must admit that some life stages are cuter than others.