Walkers have been condemned by a Scottish Government body and animal rescuers for continuing to disturb a huge colony of seals on the north-east coast.
New images have surfaced of people flouting the rules in place on the Forvie National Nature Reserve, at the northern side of the Ythan Estuary near Newburgh, to view the mammals which have made the sands their home.
Walkers have been warned they are putting both themselves, their pets and the seals at risk by continuing to get too close to the animals at the beauty spot.
The reserve, run by Scottish Natural Heritage, recommends people go no closer than 492ft from the seals.
The most recent estimates suggest the colony comprises around 2,000 of the marine creatures.
Lee Watson founded Ythan Seal Watch in order to clamp down on people harassing the animals, which can often lead to young pups being separated from or abandoned by their mothers.
Along with a number of other volunteers, he spends his weekends monitoring the estuary.
The group advises people to view the seals from across the water, at the south side of the estuary.
Mr Watson, a British Divers Marine Life Rescue mammal medic, said people were continuing to harass the seals for the sake of getting pictures.
He added: “I have been trying to deal with it for the last 18 months. We thought, we need to do something about it. People are still ignoring the signs and heading down there.
“We are actually having to deal with problems of seals being separated from their mums on the beach. There are a lot of large adult seals there. They are less likely to move and can deliver really fearsome bites.
“People need to realise they are dangerous animals. They feel safer when there is water between you and the seals. When you are on the same side, that is when they start to become wound-up and stressed.”
SNH’s Forvie reserve manager, Annabel Drysdale, said: “We all love to watch wildlife, but we also need to protect it. So we’d ask people to go to the beach at Newburgh, where you can get a better view without accidentally disturbing the seals.
“If you are visiting Forvie and come across seals on the beach, stay at least 150m away and if one or two heads come up, that means you’re close enough.”
Mr Watson added the seals are currently going through the moulting process, meaning it is particularly harmful to get too close to them.
The animals will lie out in the open for days, and scaring them into the water can cause health problems.
Mr Watson added: “It is not just a case of stop bothering the animals at the moment with breeding season just passing, because they are going through the moulting process. They are shedding excess fur and growing new fur.
“They can be out for a while. If they are forced back into the water, they can suffer health issues and shock. It can be like throwing anyone of us into the water right now.”
He added some of the adult seals could bite “through bone”.
The Scottish Government is due to designate an area of the mouth of the Ythan Estuary a haul-out site, which would provide additional protection for the animals from being disturbed.
Intentional or reckless harassment of seals at the spot would be an offence if this move is given the go-ahead.
During the summer breeding season, a fence is put in place at the site to prevent walkers from disturbing the mammals – and breaching that is illegal.
Ms Drysdale called for people to watch the seals at the beach “responsibly” by being quiet, avoiding sudden movements and backing off if it looks like they may enter the water.
People should be especially wary if pups are present, with mothers “particularly aggressive” around their young. Adult seals can move quickly.
Lone pups should also be left alone, as they are often left whilst their mothers forage for food. Touching or approaching a lone pup while she is gone may force her to abandon it on her return.