WATCH: Incredible Drone Footage Of Seal Pup Count

  • DJI Mavic 2 Pro and DJI Phantom 4 Pro, supplied by Heliguy, used to conduct seal pup count on the Farne Islands;
  • Using drones for the survey is faster, safer, and less stressful for the seals, compared to a traditional foot count;
  • A foot count of a single island may take five-to-six hours, whereas the drone can complete an island survey within about 30 or 40 minutes;
  • Aerial photographer Ritchie Southerton carried out the drone survey. DJI Gold Partner Heliguy is his prefered drone supplier, praising us for our ‘faultless customer service’, knowledgeable team and our ability to supply equipment at short notice;
  • He described the DJI Mavic 2 Pro as an ‘amazing drone for its size’. This drone is currently on offer, saving you £150. Click for details.

This stunning footage shows how drones – supplied by DJI Gold Partner Heliguy – helped to count a record number of seal pups in a safer, quicker and less disruptive way, compared to traditional methods.

Ritchie Southerton, of Ritchie Southerton Photography, flew the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro for the study, conducted on the Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast.

The count took place in November and the number of seal pups hit an all-time high of more than 2,700.

The advantage of using the drones compared to the ranger foot count is safety and speed.



Ritchie Southerton, drone photographer

The drones complemented the work of rangers on the ground and made the task far quicker – helping to complete an island survey within 40 minutes, compared to a traditional foot count which can take up to six hours.

How cute! One of the seal pups. Image by Ritchie Southerton Photography

Utilising the unmanned aircraft also makes the count more accurate, increases ranger safety and allows them to see onto the smaller islands which are more challenging to land in difficult sea conditions, and is less stressful for the seals.

Ritchie turned to DJI Gold Partner Heliguy to supply the drones, praising our ‘faultless customer service’, knowledgeable team and our ability to supply equipment at short notice.

Utilising Drones For The Count

The National Trust has been trialling drones for the Farne Islands count over the last few years.

According to Ritchie, the technology has many benefits for this task.

He said: “The advantage of using the drones compared to the ranger foot count is safety and speed.

“The rangers have to go onto each accessible island and manually count and spray each seal pup. The seal mothers are very protective of the pups and can become aggressive towards the rangers, meaning the rangers are exposed to the risk of bites and clawing. Using a drone removes this risk.

“Meanwhile, a foot count of a single island may take five-to-six hours, whereas the drone can complete an island survey within about 30 or 40 minutes.

“On one of our survey days, the drone completed six islands compared to the one island the rangers did on foot.

“Using a drone for the count is also less disruptive for the seals. I would base myself on one island and conduct aerial surveys of the surrounding islands, reducing the need to land on each island by small boat and causing no disturbance to the seals.

“Flying the drone 50 metres above their heads doesn’t upset the seals. They don’t know I am there and has no effect on them.”

This view was shared by National Trust representatives.

Ranger Thomas Hendry said: “The drone trial goes alongside our traditional methods of marking the pups with a harmless vegetable-based dye.

“But our methods are becoming a bit tricky for us rangers because the number of seals is increasing and it can also be tricky to access the islands.

Stunning drone image of the Farne Islands. Image by Ritchie Southerton Photography

“There’s also the safety element, as seals can be quite vicious. By trialling the drone, we are seeing if we can count the seals in this way, which is safer for us and less disruptive for the seals.”

However, while drones are benefiting the survey, they will never replace the need for rangers.

Ritchie said: “The drone assists the rangers by doing a lot more islands in one day and I can cover a lot more space in the time it takes them to do a foot count.

“However, it will never replace a foot count because while my photography gives rangers the numbers of seals, it does not tell them the different ages or the mortality rates of the seals.”

DroneDeploy Makes Count More Efficient

This was the second year that Ritchie has conducted the seal count by drone and this time he utilised software package DroneDeploy, which made the job even more efficient.

He said: “Last year, I conducted each flight manually and stitched the images together, then the rangers would count the pups on the stitched image.

Incredible drone shot. Image by Ritchie Southerton Photography

“However, this year I used DroneDeploy which allowed me to pre-plan every flight. This meant that every island which needed to be surveyed could be repeated the same each time, improving accuracy in the process.

“The software allows the data to be uploaded, producing a map of each island which could then be used to do a count, putting a small dot on every seal pup.

“I found the best way to survey was at 50 metres flying height, at 3-4 metres per second. This gave a mapping result of 2cm per pixel.”

Charting Wildlife With Drones

Drones are being used more and more to count and monitor wildlife, such as studying lion populations in Africa and managing elephants at Kenya’s Mara Elephant Project.

Image from DJI.

The Farne Islands seal count was another example of this technology benefiting our natural world and Ritchie believes this method will go from strength to strength.

He said: “The drone surveying at the Farne Islands has been successful and each time we are finding ways to improve the process and aid the rangers with the count.

“It is clear that using the drone safely and correctly has little or no impact on the seals compared to the foot count.

A view from above, with the seals visible all over the island. The drone gives a quick snapshot of the seals. Imagine how long it would take to cover this area by foot. Image by Ritchie Southerton Photography

“The data collected by the drones will be used by Edinburgh University and the Sea Mammal Research Unit and I believe it is a very useful tool that could be used in many other areas of wildlife surveying.”

Great Tools Provided By A Great Drone Supplier

Ritchie turned to DJI Gold Partner Heliguy for his survey drones.

Explaining why he chose us, he said: “The Heliguy team are like friends now; they are always available for advice or support and can supply extra equipment at short notice.

Smile, you’re on camera! Image by Ritchie Southerton Photography

“Heliguy’s Business Development Manager Ruairi Hardman is always my first port of call; he is so helpful and friendly and is always willing to have a quick chat.

“I’ve found Heliguy customer service faultless and our relationship is so good that I’ve been introduced to other companies as a trusted freelance operator.”

The DJI drones were the perfect tools for Ritchie. He said: “The Phantom 4 Pro is great for this kind of work and has the advantage of being able to launch and land by hand when the conditions are not perfect.

“The Mavic 2 Pro easily outperformed the Phantom 4 Pro when wind conditions reached near operating limits and just carried on surveying. It really is an amazing drone for its size.

“Both drones are great work tools and produce amazing quality images at a very affordable price. However, I can’t recommend the DJI Mavic 2 Pro enough. And it’s an unbeatable combination with the support of the Heliguy team.”

Ritchie is no stranger to drone work and his CV boasts jobs for some of the UK’s major operators across TV & film, surveying, inspection and mapping, crowd/event control monitoring, and aerial filming of music festivals.

Ritchie Southerton.

He said: “I’ve conducted drone operations from Antarctica to the Caribbean. I really enjoy all aspects of the industry and am always seeking more varied work opportunities within the drone world.”

To find out how Heliguy can start, support or scale your drone programme, give us a call or send us an email.

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