Not a single person has faced charges for deliberately disturbing the Ythan seal population since their beach became protected by law in 2017.
The seals on the northern side of the River Ythan’s mouth at the Forvie National Nature Reserve (NNR), near Newburgh, are afforded legal protection against intentional interference by humans under the Marine Scotland Act 2010.
Anyone who is proven to have disturbed the mammals at the Nature Scot NNR on purpose can face a £5,000 fine, or even time behind bars.
Lee Watson, of the Ythan Seal Watch group, said any disturbances can result in sometimes fatal stampedes as the animals rush into the water to evade encroaching humans.
He and the rest of the volunteer group have for years recorded people going past the warning signs and encroaching into the seal’s protected haul-out, and occasionally causing the animals alarm.
But Mr Watson said he was “not surprised” at the lack of charges, due to the large scale of the Ythan seal reserve, and said many who are caught on camera in close proximity to the seals are not intentionally seeking to cause harm.
He said: “We hoped that this law would have been promoted by the police and Nature Scot, and the deterrent of the law would be enough to prevent anyone getting too close to the seals, but people keep ignoring the signs and getting near them.”
He added: “Nature Scot has a responsibility to make sure visitors to their site are well aware of what they’re doing when they’re entering the haul-out area.
“We have long asked that the reserve make more effort to make the public aware of the designated haul-out area.
“When these incidents happen, it’s too late for the seals as they’ve already been disturbed.”
A spokeswoman for Nature Scot said: “We are taking all reasonable steps to promote responsible behaviour at Forvie NNR that visitors can safely enjoy watching seals on the Ythan and minimise any disturbance of the animals. We always advise visitors wishing to view the seals that the best place to do so is from Newburgh beach on the south side of the estuary.”
She added: “We keep our management under review and take advice from Marine Scotland, the local Outdoor Access Forum and Police Scotland on the best approach to visitor management and protection of the seal haul out site.”
The police said there was guidance in relation to the Ythan seals, despite there being no charges.
Wildlife crime officer PC Douglas Darling said: “People understandably want to watch the seals at Forvie, which is an NNR and protected site, and there are information signs asking them to do so without disturbing the animals.
“Seals are present throughout the year along the Ythan Estuary and breed on the mudflats so pups are a regular sight and are often left for periods of time when their mothers are feeding.
“Our advice is to watch from a distance and follow the Scottish Marine Wildlife Code.
“We would urge anyone visiting to be responsible, to read the signs, to keep any dogs on leads at all times and to watch and enjoy these marine mammals without disturbing them which means keeping your distance.
“Nature Scot officers are present on site and Police Scotland works in partnership with them to deter any deliberate harassment of the seals.
“We are committed to dealing with any crime that causes harm and anyone wishing to report a wildlife crime should contact us on 101.
“Concerns can also be reported to Marine Scotland and Nature Scot.”