Protecting the future of seals in Scotland

Research Policy Office
Tuesday 18 April 2017

The research of the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU), on behalf of NERC, has been instrumental in identifying protected haul-out sites for seals. The recently approved Protection of Seals (Designation of Haul-out Sites) (Scotland) Act 2014 designates a total of 194 individual seal haul-out sites around Scotland, at which it will be an offence to harass seals when they come ashore to rest, moult or breed. The new legislation comes into force on 30 September 2014.

Researchers at SMRU developed a standardised method to identify key seal haul-out sites in Scotland. They used aerial survey data to identify areas of consistent high density (hotspots) for common (or harbour) seals and for grey seals around Scotland. In order to prioritise protection for the most important seal sites, the principle selection criteria set out that a minimum of at least 50% of the local population of each seal species should be covered by the designated sites in combination with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). In many areas the figure is higher than this minimum. In particular, it was increased for common (or harbour seals) to between 61% and 100% of the local population (as appropriate) in those areas where numbers of this species are declining.

Estimated total density of grey seals around the UK.

The 194 sites selected consist of:

  • 149 haul-out sites, 62 used mainly by common (or harbour) seals (Phoca vitulina), 20 used mainly by grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and 67 shared by both these species, and
  • an additional 45 grey seal pupping sites, used specifically during the pupping season.
    Seal species in Scotland.

All of these sites to be designated for protection all year round. The protection is restricted exclusively to land, where seals are at their most vulnerable, and does not include the adjacent sea area.
Seals will generally choose haul-out sites that are subject to minimal disturbance by humans. The sites selected are mostly fairly small, consisting of:

  • 107 on isolated and uninhabited islands,
  • 70 on isolated and uninhabited stretches of coastline, and only
  • 17 which are closer to some form of human habitation but often at the foot of cliffs or on offshore rocks or sandbanks and hence still relatively isolated.

The penalties for those found guilty of the offence of harassing a seal at a designated haul-out site are up to 6 months imprisonment or a fine up to level 5 on the standard scale – currently up to £5,000.

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