By Jan Melrose
Grey seals breed all around the UK coastline
Grey seals have long been a common sight on the shores of Scotland.
Now scientists are wondering whether a secret seal sanctuary on the south coast could be helping them breed in the south east.
This could be a natural cove or secluded bay where grey seal pups are born and learn to swim before heading out to sea.
A thriving colony on a sandbar off Ramsgate is evidence grey seals do live here but where are the pups?
Newborn grey seals cannot swim so if any were born on the island they would drown as soon as the tide came in.
"They need to spend about three weeks on land after they're born," said Brett Lewis, who works at the University of Kent.
"Around Kent there just aren't places for them to breed so it's a mystery really as to where they're having their pups."
He wants help from the public to work out where the seals are coming from and if their numbers are increasing.
"If people are out walking and see a grey seal we'd like them to report back to us where it was and how far they thought it was off the beach. The time of day and the time of year is really important as well. If we can get that then we can map some of these seal numbers around the coast."
Are grey seal pups being born in secret locations around the coast?
Antibiotics and fish soup
Some grey seals have even been found in woods. Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre near Hastings is the only place in the South East equipped to help sick and injured baby seals get fit and fat enough to go back to the sea.
Recently a female grey seal pup, just a few days old, was brought in by a dog walker who found her at 0500. The staff there believe she had been separated from her mother by a storm. She has some injuries so she is on a course of antibiotics and fish soup. Once she is strong enough she will be released back into the wild.
Jolyon Chesworth, the Wildlife Trust's South East Marine Conservation Manager, has a theory about where the grey seals could be coming from.
"There are relatively few grey seals on the English Channel coast, there's the colony at Ramsgate that we know about and probably two individuals in the Solent area near Chichester Harbour," he said.
"They can go off on their own and give birth in caves where it's nice and secure and there're no predators but I think it's probably very rare for large numbers of grey seals to be breeding in the English Channel.
"Obviously they are being born but I would imagine it is in low numbers and that the high numbers come from elsewhere, possibly Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, and are swimming down to Kent. If they were breeding here regularly I think someone would have found them by now."
If you spot any grey seals, especially pups, please contact the
Kent and Medway Biological Record Centre
and let them know.
BBC Inside Out South East looks at the seals of the south east on Monday 8 February at 19:30 on BBC One.