A voluntary group set up to protect an Aberdeenshire seal colony from harm has been told to cease its efforts.
Lee Watson, who runs the Ythan Seal Watch organisation, has for the past five years given up his free time to make sure the animals are not bothered by visitors coming too close, as it can result in fatal stampedes.
Mr Watson makes sure people observe the animals from the safe position of the southern side of the bay.
Mr Watson, who is a volunteer with the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme and medic for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue organisation, has now been informed by Nature Scot – the Scottish Government’s nature quango – that his efforts are not welcome.
Nature Scot argues that individuals have “no authority to prevent other people from accessing the reserve”, and has raised concerns that Mr Watson’s preventative work with visitors could result in a “conflict situation”.
Mr Watson said: “It’s Nature Scot’s choice, but if they don’t want me to do it, they have to do it.
“It’s a vast area to cover, and I’ve always said that if Nature Scot can’t protect the seals, then the public shouldn’t be able to access them.
“With the frequent disturbances and stampedes, the little juvenile pups get flushed out to sea, and we’ve got to go and find them.
“We’ve had about six or so in recent months wash up as far away as Blackdog and Balmedie beaches.
“We’ve had more dead seals at the estuary in this past year than in previous years.”
A spokeswoman for Nature Scot said: “A social media post by the Ythan Seal Watch group indicated that attempts would be made by them to stop members of the public from accessing parts of Forvie National Nature Reserve.
“We made the appropriate local authorities aware as individuals have no authority to prevent other people from accessing the reserve and we were concerned it could lead to a conflict situation.”
She added: “We are taking all reasonable steps to promote responsible behaviour at Forvie National Nature Reserve so that visitors can safely enjoy watching seals on the Ythan and avoid causing any harassment of the animals.
“If any members of the public think there is reckless or deliberate harassment of seals at the haul out site they should report the incident to Police Scotland.”
The area where the animals rest has been afforded special protection and anyone who is proven to have disturbed the gentle mammals can face criminal charges.