THE countdown has begun to one of the great wildlife events in the annual calendar of the Lincolnshire Coast - the return of hundreds of grey seals to mate and give birth at Donna Nook.
In the coming weeks, the number of voluntary wardens on the rota will rise to 50 in readiness to field questions from and to provide guidance for up to 70,000 visitors who will come from all parts of England and further afield to witness what is a magical and memorable winter spectacle.
It is indeed remarkable to see - close-up - the birth of the cute little pups (1,699 were born last winter) or the bulls battling to secure territory and to retain "possession" of their harems of up to eight females.
To their discredit, the bulls take no interest in the pups they have fathered - the only thing on their minds during their time on shore is to cover as many females as they can.
Blakeney, on the North Norfolk coast, is now reckoned to have the largest breeding colony of grey seals on the East Coast, but Donna Nook is not far behind.
That puts immense pressure on the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust which manages the local reserve by agreement with the Ministry of Defence which requires the sand and mud flats for training by military aircraft.
There is no electricity, no WCs, nor other infrastructure to accommodate all the seal-watchers - sometimes as many as 4,000 on a sunny Sunday. There is just a fence, admittedly a sturdy one, to separate the humans from the animals.
This structure is important. Contrary to claims made by some - particularly unscrupulous photographers - that the seals are happy to be approached to within touching distance, research on the creatures' heartbeats has revealed that they find such proximity extremely stressful.
In the past, BBC TV's AutumnWatch has several times sought the permission of the trust to film live what happens, but, so far, it has always been politely rebuffed because the hefty demands of a TV presence would add further complications to oversight of the seals and their welfare.
Overseeing the Donna Nook colony for the past four years has been Lizzie Lemon, from Oakham, who has mostly been working in countryside and environmental management since she graduated from University College, Aberystwyth.
|Donna Nook grey seal expert Lizzie Lemon|
Before coming to Lincolnshire, Lizzie was a key member of the team that oversaw the successful return of Anglian Water's Rutland Water reserve on behalf of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
At the October meeting of the LWT's Grimsby and Cleethorpes group, she captivated an audience of 30 with her insights not just into the breeding behaviour of the seals but also with her amusing anecdotes about the well-meaning but misguided eccentricities of certain of the visitors - for instance, those who bring along blankets or flasks of hot chocolate to keep the seals warm!
On one occasion, a kindly lady brought with her £50 worth of fish for the seals, not realising they are in non-feeding mode while breeding.
Another threw them cabbages which she had bought from farmer's stall at the site's car park in the mistaken belief that they had been laid on specially to feed to the seals - in the same way that bread is fed to ducks at the resort's boating lake and country park.
Some years ago, former Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell sparked controversy by backing a campaign - ultimately unsuccessful - for the seals to be culled after fishermen claimed they were decimating stocks of cod, whiting and sole.
But, since then, laboratory analysis of the creatures' excrement collected in bucketloads by Lizzie (one of her less pleasurable duties!) has revealed that their diet consists largely of low- or nil- value fish species such as short-spined sea scorpions, sandeels and dragonets.
According to Lizzie, noise from the extensive use of the flats for aircraft bombing and target practice causes no disturbance to the seals - but they are sometimes spooked both by the vibrations caused by the rotating blades of Chinook helicopters passing overhead and by heavy piling works during installation of concrete bases for offshore wind turbines.
Is there any prospect that the seemingly ever-increasing seal colony could overspill northwards to Tetney Marshes or even Cleethorpes?
Probably not - at least in the near future - because, according to Lizzie, there is still sufficient capacity for it to expand further at Donna Nook.