THE first seal pups of the year have been seen on the Farne Islands, triggering the start of the annual count of the youngsters.

Each year more than 1,500 seals are born on the islands off the Northumberland coast, which are managed by the National Trust.

Rangers from the trust spend two months each autumn monitoring the success rate of the breeding seals in what is one of the largest Atlantic grey seal colonies in England, with an estimated population of 5,000.

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In 2014, 1,740 pups were recorded, the highest number since 1971, and the figure rose again in 2015 to 1,876.

National Trust ranger Ed Tooth said: "A lack of predators and a plentiful supply of sand eels and gadoids (cod) - which make up a majority of the seals' diet - has contributed to the success of the colony.

"The seals have also selected a different location for their rookeries, the breeding sites for the seals.

"Previously more pups were born on the islands of North and South Wamses, but now many seals try to breed on Brownsman and Staple islands.

"This has resulted in mortality rates dropping, possibly because these islands offer better protection from storms and high seas."

The rangers, who live on the islands for nine months of the year, count the seals every four days as long as the weather permits, and the youngsters are sprayed with a harmless dye to show the week they are born to allow the conservation staff to keep track of the the numbers.

Mr Tooth said: "Waiting for the first seal pup to be born is always an exciting time of year.

"It's impossible not to be fascinated by the bright white, fluffy, wide-eyed pups even though we will hopefully see more than 2,000 pups over the coming weeks."