The Scottish Government has officially backed plans to protect seals from harassment at a north-east beauty spot.
Holyrood’s environment, climate change and land reform committee’s decision this week will make it an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the colony of animals at the Ythan Estuary, near Newburgh, as of May 4.
The site on the northern side of the mouth of the River Ythan – home to an estimated 2,000 of the marine creatures – will now be designated a haul-out zone.
Wildlife lovers and animal activists have been fighting to stop dog walkers and other visitors to the estuary from approaching the seals on the north bank.
People have been persistently breaching the rules in place at the spot on the Forvie National Nature Reserve, which recommends people go no closer than 492ft from the mammals.
Anyone who breaches the new rules in place could face fines of up to £5,000 and potentially six months imprisonment.
Last night, Lee Watson, who founded the Ythan Seal Watch to clamp down on people harassing the seals, said the designation would act as a “deterrent” for those currently breaching the rules “knowing fine they can get away with it”.
The British Divers Marine Life Rescue medic added: “Because Marine Scotland sort of wanted it to start with, we did know it would go through.
“Despite some opposition, the government also came out with a compromise allowing people to view and enjoy the seals.
“No one is down there to maliciously cause problems for the seals. People are just keen to get pictures. People are well aware of the fact they can go down just now and there is nothing we can do about it.
“Hopefully, the idea of designation itself is enough of a deterrent.
“This is a particularly busy time of year, because this is when they start their moult.”
Aberdeenshire East MSP, Gillian Martin, added: “The beach at Newburgh is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in Scotland and visitors regularly go there to see its natural beauty.
“Hundreds of seals inhabit the area they call home, feeding in the nearby waters and rearing pups.
“I am delighted the Scottish Government have taken the necessary steps to amend the legislation and include Ythan Estuary.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Ythan haul-out site was identified as being an important location for grey seals, which is why Scottish ministers, consulting with the Natural Environment Research Council, designated it as a specific haul-out site.”
Mr Watson said disturbing the animals can lead to young pups being separated from or abandoned by their mothers and smaller seals being crushed and injured by larger ones during stampedes, and an increased risk of entanglements.
Seals are particularly vulnerable during the moulting process, which can leave their immune systems weakened.
Mr Watson said the Ythan Seal Watch will continue to “push” its educational efforts at the estuary, and protect any seals who spring up on sands outwith the haul-out zone.
He added there may continue to be problems with drones potentially being launched from the south bank and disturbing the colony.
Ythan Seal Watch advises people to view the seals from across the water, at the south side of the estuary, to avoid disturbing the colony.