The History of the Mablethorpe Seal Sanctuary and Wildlife Centre
Our Story. The history of how the Animal and Bird Garden, opened in 1974, became The Mablethorpe Seal Sanctuary and Wildlife Centre. The first seal arrived in 1974 but it was a bullfinch in 1940 that marked the real beginning.
My grandfather had just been called up to serve in the Far East and he had no choice but to release his collection of birds. One, a bullfinch, refused to go so my mother, then aged five, volunteered to look after it. A lifetime of looking after animal waifs and strays had just begun.
As well as being a nationally renowned bird keeper, my grandfather was a head gardener and his skills in garden design were only ever bettered by my mother. My grandmother was capable of juggling all sorts of demands – I cannot recall her ever to stop working and she was undoubtedly the best cook known to mankind (or at least childrenkind – my sister and I never went without). In 1965 my father brought all these skills together, added his own of being able to build wonderful things from the most unlikely materials and together the family constructed a zoological garden in a picturesque Suffolk village.
But would anyone be prepared to pay 1/6d (7 ½ p) to view what was really not much more than our collective hobby? The tensions of the time must have sunk into my ten year old head because the night before opening I dreamed that just one car arrived but then immediately turned away. However, father’s confidence was vindicated: over 700 visitors came on that first day and cars were parked as far as the eye could see.
Mother’s experience of wildlife care was invaluable because injured creatures ranging from bats to badgers started to arrive. One casualty was an orphaned roe deer and was, like the bullfinch, eventually going to change all our lives. Meanwhile, although visitor numbers were high, most people came on Sunday afternoons in the six weeks of the summer holidays. Having so few days to support 300 animals was a constant worry and after a series of wet weekends in 1971 the fears culminated with the grounds being completely flooded.
The Move to Mablethorpe
Shortly after the flood an invitation came to tender for the opportunity to build and operate a zoological garden at Mablethorpe. First impressions of the site were not good: the leaden October sky, a biting north wind and sprawling heaps of black ditch dredgings all conspired to make us want to bundle father back into the car and head straight back home. It was at that moment that a fox (a very rare sight in Suffolk) nonchalantly wandered past: we were captivated; perhaps Mablethorpe might be worth trying after all.
Despite stiff competition my parent’s application was successful and the following September they set off with a basic toolkit and a tiny touring caravan. Over the next 11 months they installed the services, laid out the flowerbeds, built the enclosures and erected a tearoom and gift shop ready to open in August 1974 as the "Animal & Bird Garden". All this without a single grant! In all the preparations the thought that seals might have to be looked after was never considered, so when the first one arrived, frantic telephone calls were made in an effort to find out how to care for it. Fortunately, Skegness Natureland was able to provide advice and the pup survived.
In 1976 another arrival was a young nurse who thought it would be interesting to "be employed for a few weeks to find out how to look after goats properly". At the last count Linda had put in the equivalent of 3000 working weeks and has been responsible for saving thousands of animal lives. But whether she thinks she knows enough about goats is another matter.
The orphaned roe deer in Suffolk had been reared on milk from goats belonging to three sisters. As a result of the regular milk collections they and my father became close friends. In 1978 two of the sisters died leaving the last, in her eighties, to cope with a 20-acre estate. It was a haven for wildlife and little had been done to it since Miss Iseult Hollond had been born there in 1897. When she asked my parents if they would look after her and the grounds, my father could not resist the challenge. But what would happen to Mablethorpe? This was my opportunity to take on a challenge of my own.
Building the Seal Hospital
By the mid-eighties seal numbers were gradually increasing and for those needing long-term care we constructed our first ‘big’ pool. In reality it was only 1,000 gallons but it seemed enormous at the time. Meanwhile wooden crates and tin baths were the extent of the facilities for the pups. Common seals in the summer were not too much of a problem but grey seals in the winter were another matter. It was during a blizzard while we were trying to make a shelter for some newly arrived pups that we knew something had to be done.
By early 1988 we had saved about £5,000 for building a seal hospital. Then disaster struck: seals began dying in their thousands from Phocine Distemper Virus. We realised that even our new hospital would have been inadequate so we set about fund-raising again with renewed vigour. As well as support from businesses such as ConocoPhillips, building materials were also donated and there was a massive boost when we received £20,000 from readers of the Daily Mail. At last we were able to construct a wildlife hospital that would stand the test of time.
Looking after wildlife was taking up most of our resources and with so many generous donations it seemed obvious to seek charitable status for the rescue work. This was granted in 1990 at about the same time as the seal hospital was finished but after all the emphasis on seals the first admission was a moorhen!
Introducing Prehistoric Wildlife
After replacing the old tearoom in 1992 I was then able to indulge my interest in prehistoric wildlife to the full. Initially there was the justification of providing a home for two lynx that were threatened with euthanasia but the project took on a life of its own. As well as giving the lynx the best possible facilities I also wanted to show how life in Lincolnshire has changed since the end of the Ice Age. Apart from the research there was a lot of physical work: 40 tons of sand had to be dug out and 40 tons of rocks put into place – all by hand. Just about everyone on the staff helped in its construction so you can understand our pride when we received an award for our efforts from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.
Expanding the Seal Pools
Meanwhile, the number of seals needing care continued to rise. When I started in 1979 I collected £50’s worth of fish every month from Grimsby Docks. Now with over 60 seals arriving every year we need a weekly delivery and the monthly bill approaches £4,000.
In 2000 we set about designing a series of interlinked pools holding about 25,000 gallons that allow the seals a stimulating place to live. I want to put on record the effort that went into constructing the main pool: 8 of us, including at one point our local mayor, Bernard Dobbs, (in his suit) mixed and laid over 80 tons of concrete in a single 14 hour session! No one who was there will ever forget or want to repeat that day. With that project completed Linda and I felt we ought to change the name to "The Seal Sanctuary" and reflect more closely what we felt the future held. Our latest seal care building should help ease the demand for space and we have done our best to make it as environmentally friendly as possible.