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Harrass Newburgh seals and you could face £5,000 fine or even prison, warn police

The seals at Newburgh are legally protected, because human disturbances can cause the animals serious harm or even death.

seals newburgh
The population of seals at Newburgh beach in Aberdeenshire is legally protected. Image: Blair Dingwall/DC Thomson.

Police have warned the public against harassing a population of seals at Newburgh beach in Aberdeenshire.

At the mouth of the River Ythan, just next to Newburgh, hundreds of seals have claimed the northern shoreline as a haul-out site.

The marine mammals routinely attract visitors from all across the north-east and beyond, eager to see them up close.

It’s perfectly permissible and actively encouraged to observe the animals from a safe distance, just across the river on the southern side of the mouth of the river Ythan.

But even though this vantage point provides superb views of the seals lounging on the beach and swimming in the water, in recent years people have still been spotted ignoring the warning signs and getting far too close to the seals.

Such behaviour puts both themselves and the seals at risk.

If disturbed by selfie-takers, dog-walkers or drone-flyers, the seals can stampede into the water for safety, which can put the frightened animals and their young at risk of injury or even death.

In order to protect the seals, the area at the north shore of the Ythan mouth was afforded legal protection as a designated haul-out site in 2017.

Rule-breakers can face hefty fines or even prison time.

How are people harassing the seals at Newburgh?

Wildlife Crime Liaison Officer Hannah Corbett. Image: Police Scotland.

Wildlife crime liaison officer Hannah Corbett says the police in Aberdeenshire are actively working together with the council, the Ythan Seal Watch organisation and Nature Scot to protect the seals from harassment.

Hannah said although “good weather may increase the number of visitors to the area, it is only a small number ever causing the most serious problems”.

Even just approaching the seals on land on the restricted northern shore of the river mouth can alarm the seals, but Hannah explained there has been occasions of particularly bad behaviour over the years.

She said: “People flying drones over the tops of the seals cause them to stampede into the water.

Just some of the hundreds of seals lounging at the mouth of the Ythan. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson.

“When seals stampede, it puts them at risk of injury due to them all rushing and panicking to get into the water quickly.”

The police officer said there have also been reports of visitors walking up to the seals “for selfies or to pet them”, which she says “not only causes distress to the seals, but it puts themselves at risk of harm from being bitten or attacked by the seals”.

Hannah added: “Out of control dogs approaching, attacking or chasing the seals — again, this can cause the seals to stampede, separate pups from their mothers, and causes risk of harm to the dog”.

How do the police handle the harassment of seals at Newburgh?

A solitary seal pokes his head out of the water at Newburgh. Image: Blair Dingwall/DC Thomson.

Under the Marine Scotland Act 2010, it is an offence to either intentionally or recklessly harass the seals in the area.

Anyone found to have committed such an offence can face a fine of up to £5,000,  imprisonment for up to six months, or even both. 

Hannah said she enforces this legislation, but she also tries to prevent crime occurring by giving out information and guidance.

She said that “pro-active investigations and patrols take place” in the Newburgh area “when the opportunity arises”.

Seal pups are at particular risk if harassment results in stampedes for safety. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson.

“If the incident is deemed too severe or the person involved is a repeat offender, then they will be reported to the procurator fiscal,” she explained.

Hannah said: “Every incident is assessed and the outcome dictated by the evidence gathered.

“The potential legal repercussions are the same.”

She said that providing education to prevent any harassment in the first place is the focus of the police.

How can you go and see them responsibly?

The car park down the road from the Newburgh Inn and near the golf club is the place to go to observe the seals responsibly at Newburgh. Image: Visit Scotland.

The best way to avoid harassment of the seals is to not go anywhere near them from the northern side of the river.

Instead, head down Beach Road in Newburgh, next to the Newburgh Inn, and park up at the seal car park.

A short sandy stroll from here will take you to the southern side of the river mouth, giving you fantastic views of the seals, at a distance far away enough that you’ll not disturb them, but close enough that you won’t even need binoculars.

If in doubt, just follow the signs.

You can get a great view from the southern side of the river mouth, so don’t put yourself or the seals at risk by trying to go near them on land from the northern side. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson.

Hannah said: “There are several avenues to research good practice and signage in the areas with clear instructions advising people how to behave around the seals.

“It is better to observe and enjoy them from a distance, the best place to do this is at the Ythan is on the south side of the estuary at Newburgh.

“Modern mobile telephones can take good distance photographs so there is no need to get up close to them and disturb them for a photograph, and as previously stated using drones over the seals causes unrest amongst the colony which leads to stampedes.”