A warning has been issued to watersport enthusiasts in the Highlands after several incidents involving seals and their pups at a loch.
A series of recent incidents at Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve (NNR) has prompted NatureScot, Scotland’s nature agency, to urge people to stay clear of seals and their pups.
The warning comes as many harbour seals are caring for their young at this time of year, making it vital that visitors to sites where seals are present don’t disturb the area.
Disturbances can cause mothers to become separated from their pups have little to no chance of survival due to being stranded or abandoned.
Recently, at Loch Fleet, there have been incidents involving paddleboarders and kayakers who have come too close to the sandy banks which are usually occupied by seals. This has caused the seal to flee out of fear.
It was reported that one paddleboarder embarked onto the banks to take a selfie with the seals.
Harbour seals usually use more isolated areas in order to care for their young, however, the increase in watersports across Scotland has led to some locations becoming unusable.
‘It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect these amazing assets’
Loch Fleet NNR is one of 194 designated seal haul-outs around Scotland where seals come ashore to rest, moult, breed and have pups. It is an offence to harass seals at these haul-outs.
Adam Rose, NatureScot’s Loch Fleet NNR manager, said: “We don’t usually have an issue with water sports, but there has been a surge in use of paddleboards, canoes and kayaks on the loch since lockdown eased.
“With the combination of summer holidays, good weather, lots of places to launch at Loch Fleet and the short distance to seal haul-out sites on the nature reserve, we’re really concerned about how the seals could be affected.”
Paddleboards and kayaks are more of a danger for seals than motorised boats as the noise from a boat’s engine alerts the seals to their presence and so can move far away to avoid coming too close.
However, there have been fewer reports of litter, campfires and irresponsible parking on NNRs, after £750,000 in Scottish Government funding for visitor management and for 20 additional rangers this spring.
Ben Ross, NatureScot’s head of protected areas and nature reserves, said: “It is wonderful to see people increasingly discovering, appreciating and enjoying nature as we emerge from the pandemic.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect these amazing assets, and we’d like to thank the vast majority of our visitors for caring for and protecting the environment and respecting others’ rights when they’re out in the countryside.
“We’ve seen quite a difference so far this spring and summer, and encourage visitors to our nature reserves and to the countryside more widely to continue to play their part.”