Protected sites proposed for seals in 194 Scottish locations

Harbour seal Image copyright SPL
Image caption Seals will be protected at coastal sites where they come ashore to rest, breed or moult

Legislation to designate 194 protected sites for seals has been proposed at the Scottish parliament.

From 30 September, it would be an offence to intentionally or recklessly harass the animals within the sites.

The selected haul-out areas are isolated locations around Scotland's coastline where seals come ashore to rest, breed or moult.

The government has been criticised for only including sites used by half of Scotland's seal population.

Environmental groups claimed the move - aimed at protecting "other sustainable activities" such as fish farming - would drive thousands of seals out or their natural waters.

'Iconic species'

The government, however, insist the sites chosen are those most crucial to the long-term welfare of Scottish seals.

Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said: "Seals are one of Scotland's most iconic species and that is why we have introduced a raft of new measures to better protect them.

"Haul-out sites are key to the success of both grey and common seals and this list represents an important step in their conservation.

"Over the last four years, Marine Scotland has worked closely with the Natural Environment Research Council and the Sea Mammal Research Unit to identify the listed sites, which are the most crucial for seals in Scottish waters.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Environmental groups have given a cautious welcome to the legislation which will only cover sites used by half of Scotland's seal population

"Those engaging in the intentional or reckless harassment of seals in these areas will be committing an offence and if caught will be punished appropriately."

Sarah Dolman, deputy convener of Scottish Environment LINK Marine Task Force, welcomed the announcement.

She said: "This will help decision makers to ensure protection of seals and is an important piece of the jigsaw that is the effective management of Scottish seas.

Other groups backed the move but insisted it should be extended to include more haul-out sites.

Alex Kinninmonth, of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: "Seals should be free from harassment wherever they are, but the designation of these haul-out sites is certainly a step in the right direction.

Marine wildlife

"Along with other conservation measures, this will aid the protection and recovery of these iconic animals."

Libby Anderson, policy director at animal protection charity OneKind, said: "Ultimately, we want to see legal protection for all seals against all forms of disturbance and harassment.

"We hope that this will lead to all those who share the environment with marine wildlife, from dog walkers to anglers, fish farmers and salmon netsmen, recognising that seals at rest must be left alone."

During the government's consultation process, Vassili Papastavrou, a biologist with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), said protecting sites used by only half of the seals was "bizarre".

He said: "The government suggests that allowing intentional harassment of seals on about half of their haul-out sites is part of some kind of 'balance' between seals and other sustainable activities.

"But how could an activity that forces a top predator from the local ecosystem ever meet criteria for 'sustainability'?"

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites