Guidance for interacting with seals
Scotland is well known for our diverse flora and fauna, both on land and in the sea. Some of the most iconic species seen around our coasts are seals. Scotland is home to a population of approximately 122,000 grey seals and 27,000 harbour (common) seals.
Haul out sites are where the seals come out of the water to rest, moult, breed and to have pups. Seals that are hauled out may be particularly sensitive to approach by humans whether from the land, sea or air and therefore caution is required in such circumstances.
Section 117 of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 provides Scottish Ministers with the power to designate seal haul out sites. The sites were identified following work between Marine Scotland and the Sea Mammal Research unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews. A link to a map of all 195 locations can be found here.
Under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly harass a seal at a designated haul out site. Marine Scotland has produced guidance which includes examples of actions that might constitute harassment and information on behaving responsibly around seal haul outs.
Seals rest on land to conserve energy or for females to nurse their young. This is also time when the seals can regulate their temperature while they moult, either due to pups growing in their adult fur, or the annual moult of adults. Regulating temperature in water and swimming all expends energy and when forced to enter the water to avoid a perceived threat seals are stressed and use additional energy. It is also a danger to new pups that may be injured or killed by adults in large groups that rush into the water.
There are some body language cues that can let you know if you are at risk of disturbing seals. They have a three stage response to a perceived threat:
- “Heads-up” response – The clue is in the name and is when the seals raise their heads and watch your location and approach. If you see this behaviour, you should back away and/or change your method and speed of approach.
- Movement – The seals will start to shift around and appear agitated, if they were laying on their sides they may move to position on their stomachs to allow them to retreat further if they think they need to. If you notice this behaviour you need to back off from the seals so you do not cause the third stage of the response.
- Stampede – The seals will quickly retreat from land to the water to escape. This puts the seals at risk of injury as well as any pups that are amongst them.
The Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code (SMWWC) provides recommendations and advice on responsible wildlife watching in three sections: on the coast, on the sea and in the sea. Advice specific to watching seals from the coast:
- Look up the site you are thinking of visiting to see if there are any local wildlife management schemes or initiatives that provide information on the population. Follow any of their guidance and be aware of the local pupping seasons and avoid visiting breeding sites during these periods.
- On land, and especially at breeding sites, keep your distance. Keep dogs away as they can become over excited and cause a stampede response. Do not try to touch or feed seals. Seals can move surprisingly fast even on land and as cute as they may appear, they are predators and are known to bite.
- Do not try to touch or feed seals. Seals can move surprisingly fast even on land, and as cute as they may appear, they are predators and are known to bite.
- Never separate pups from mothers, this again leads to stress for both mother and pup and risks the pup being abandoned by its mother.
- If you see any lone pups, leave them alone – the mother may only be foraging for food. There are signs that a pup may have been abandoned which can be found on the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) website.
- Don’t stay too long as other people may be nearby waiting to see them and you should not crowd or encircle seals. If there are a number of you, keep to one side of the seals and do not stand between them and an escape route to the water.
- Keep the noise down and avoid sudden movements. Much like you wouldn’t want a loud group of people jumping out and blocking you from leaving your peaceful resting spot.
The world is going through so much right now and mental health is so important. Going for a walk on the beach gives you that dose of fresh air and daily exercise, we just want to ask that you remember to do so safely for the animals that know those beaches as safe places.
Frequently asked questions:
- What is a designated seal haul out site?
A designated haul-out site is any place, which Scottish Ministers designate as such by Order, after consulting with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). These are identified by survey as areas of consistent high density (hotspots) for harbour and grey seals.
- What are the 195 sites designated for?
Of a total of 149 haul-out sites:
- 62 are used mainly by harbour seals (Phoca vitulina)
- 20 are used mainly by grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)
- 67 are shared by both these species.
An additional 45 sites are grey seal breeding colonies, used by this species specifically during their pupping season.
All of these sites provide protection all year round.
- Are there any times of year that are particularly sensitive?
Harbour seals usually give birth in early summer (June – July) and spend time ashore in August for their annual moult.
Grey seals give birth in the autumn (September – December) and stay on land for several weeks. Adults and pups leave in the spring once they have finished their moult and the pups have been weaned.
- What constitutes harassment?
Details on intentional and reckless harassment can be found in the Marine Scotland document guidance on the offence of harassment at seal haul out sites.
- What should I do if a group of seals reacts to me watching them?
This is an early sign that the seals could be scared from their resting place. If you notice either steps one or two detailed above in the seal behaviour section, you should back away and review your approach.
- What should I do if I see a seal that doesn’t look healthy?
You can contact Scottish SPCA or BDMLR if you are concerned for the welfare of a seal.
- What should I do if I suspect someone of committing an offence by harassing seals?
If you are concerned that you have seen someone to commit a wildlife offence, you can contact Marine Scotland Compliance on 0131 244 2286 or via our website. Alternatively you can contact Police Scotland on 101 or using their website.
- What about other wildlife?
NatureScot’s guide to best practice for watching marine wildlife provides advice on wildlife watching on land and at sea.
- What do I do if I find a dead seal?
If you come across a seal carcass, you should contact the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS). To report a stranding: phone/text: 07979 245893 or 01463 243030 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
When you report a stranding, please try to provide the following information:
- Date found
- Location (grid reference if possible)
- Photographs of the carcase
- Species or description (see species guide)
- Overall length (estimation)
- Condition of the animal
- Your contact details
Main picture: Harbour seal and pup. Picture provided by Jack Lucas/Crown copyright.