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What is a seal haul-out site?

A haul-out site is a location on land where seals come out of the water to rest, to moult to breed and to have pups. Common (or harbour) seals use the same sites for all of these activities. Grey seals use a range of sites for resting and moulting during the period January to August (some shared with common/harbour seals) but move to other sites to breed and have pups from September to December. Seals that are hauled out on land may be sensitive to too close an approach by humans whether from the land, sea or air and caution is required in such circumstances. The nature of haul-out sites varies widely and can include rocky islets or rocky shorelines, sandy or shingle beaches or sandbanks and, occasionally, grassy areas on some isolated islands (particularly for breeding grey seals).

Why protect these sites?

Section 117 of The Marine Scotland Act (2010) (the Act) introduced a new offence of intentional or reckless harassment of seals at haul-out sites. It also makes provision for Scottish Ministers, after consultation with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), to designate haul-out sites at which seals might be protected from harassment. This section was included in response to concerns expressed by the Scottish Parliament that individuals, who were no longer able to kill seals without a licence, might resort to harassing them at their haul-outs where they are vulnerable. The new protection order will make such action an offence under the Act.

What does the protection order do?

The Protection of Seals (Designation of Haul-out Sites) (Scotland) Act 2014 designates a total of 194 individual seal haul-out sites around Scotland, at which it will be an offence to harass seals from when it comes into force on 30 September 2014. It seeks to offer an optimum balance between maximising protection for the largest number of seals while minimising possible impacts on other sustainable activities around the coast, such as fisheries, aquaculture and the wildlife tourism, which are equally important for coastal and island communities.

How were the sites selected?

The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) on behalf of NERC developed a standardised method to identify key seal haul-out sites in Scotland. They used aerial survey data to identify areas of consistent high density (hotspots) for common (or harbour) seals and for grey seals around Scotland. In order to prioritise protection for the most important seal sites, the principle selection criteria set out that a minimum of at least 50% of the local population of each seal species should be covered by the designated sites in combination with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). In many areas the figure is higher than this minimum. In particular, it was increased for common (or harbour seals) to between 61% and 100% of the local population (as appropriate) in those areas where numbers of this species are declining.


Were there any changes following the consultation?

The original list of 146 seal haul-out sites was reviewed in light of the consultation responses from conservation and welfare interests. This involved revised selection criteria by which several small sites were merged to produce larger ones, the inclusion of additional sites and more seals and the addition of 45 significant grey seal breeding sites. The review also considered all additional sites proposed by consultees against the new selection criteria. In addition to this review of the sites, Marine Scotland also produced Guidance on the Offence of Harassment at Seal Haul-out Sites, in consultation with Scottish Natural Heritage and SMRU, as requested by a number of industry respondees. This guidance includes definitions of harassment, intentional and reckless

Which seal species are included?

The 194 sites selected consist of:-

  • 149 haul-out sites, 62 used mainly by common (or harbour) seals (Phoca vitulina), 20 used mainly by grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and 67 shared by both these species , and
  • an additional 45 grey seal pupping sites, used specifically during the pupping season.

All of these sites to be designated for protection all year round. The protection is restricted exclusively to land, where seals are at their most vulnerable, and does not include the adjacent sea area.

What kind of locations are included?

Seals will generally choose haul-out sites that are subject to minimal disturbance by humans. The total of 194 sites selected are mostly fairly small, consisting of:-

  • 107 on isolated and uninhabited islands,
  • 70 on isolated and uninhabited stretches of coastline, and only
  • 17 which are closer to some form of human habitation but often at the foot of cliffs or on offshore rocks or sandbanks and hence still relatively isolated.

What percentage of the seal population is covered?

The 194 sites haul-out sites aim in combination with SACs to protect at least 50% of both the common (or harbour) and grey seal populations in each of the different Seal Management Areas around Scotland but higher than this minimum in most areas. In addition, in those areas where common (or harbour) seals have suffered recent declines, this proportion increases to between 61% and 100% of the regional population in direct correlation to the extent of the decline.

Can the list of sites be reviewed?

The initial 194 sites designated under The Protection of Seals (Designation of Haul-out Sites) (Scotland) Act 2014 represents a starting point. It is open to Scottish Ministers to review the list in future years. This will allow for the designated sites to reflect changes in seal haul-out patterns over time by the addition of sites newly adopted by seals, if they meet the criteria, or by the removal of existing sites that seals have abandoned.

What might constitute harassment?

Marine Scotland has produced Guidance on the Offence of Harassment at Seal Haul-out Sites, which offers definitions of harassment, intentional and reckless. It also makes clear that the offence of harassment of seals relates to seals present on the actual haul-out sites, where they are most vulnerable, rather than to the sites themselves in the absence of seals or to neighbouring sea areas. The Guidance also offers examples of actions that might constitute harassment and information on behaving responsibly around seal haul-outs. The guidance can be found at:- www.scotland.gov.uk/sealhaulouts

What are the penalties?

The penalties for those found guilty of the offence of harassing a seal at a designated haul-out site are up to 6 months imprisonment or a fine up to level 5 on the standard scale - currently up to £5,000.

What are the implications for existing activities?

Existing activities taking place near seal haul-outs that cause no disturbance to the seals, because they have become accustomed to the people, boats or aircraft involved, will normally still be acceptable. If they present no significant disturbance to the seals, or the disturbance is low level (a few seals) and/or short term (over a short time period) this is acceptable. It will only rise to the level of harassment either where the majority of seals are massively disturbed in a single incident or, much more likely, where large numbers of seals are significantly disturbed on a repeated or on-going basis.

What are the implications of any new activities?

New activities taking place near seal haul-outs, which present no significant disturbance to the seals, or where the disturbance is low level (a few seals) and/or short term (over a short time period), will normally be acceptable. This may require some monitoring of the seals to avoid the risk of potentially causing a significant proportion of seals on a haul-out site to leave that site either more than once or repeatedly or, in the worst cases, to abandon it permanently.

What are the implications for research and welfare?

There are certain specific scientific or welfare activities, which might occasionally take place on or near designated seal haul-out sites, that require to be carried out in relation to the conservation or welfare of seals. It is unlikely that these activities would be considered harassment provided that they are undertaken responsibly and lawfully. In cases where a research licence is necessary this should be acquired beforehand.

What is the relationship between Special Areas of Conservations (SACs), seal conservation areas, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the new designated haul-out sites? 

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) - 15 designated SACs in Scotland already protect the most important local populations of seals against disturbance both on land and in water. This is a higher level of protection than offered by to the haul-out sites reflecting the importance of these key sites. The presence of a local SAC for seals means that any consideration of licence applications in or near to such an area will consider whether or not the proposal is likely to have a significant effect on the seals in the SAC concerned. If this is considered to be the case an appropriate assessment is required. Any licence will only subsequently be issued if there is no satisfactory alternative and it is determined that there will be no adverse effect on integrity of the SAC. The 194 seal haul-out sites are additional to these key SACs:

Seal Conservation Areas – there are currently 5 Seal Conservation Areas around Scotland designed to protect declining common (or harbour) seal populations across particular Seal Management Areas. Seal Conservation Areas take into account the status of the local seal populations for each species. It means that any consideration of licence applications in such an area will take into account the Permitted Biological Removal (PBR) specific to that vulnerable local seal population. Any licence will only be granted if there is no satisfactory alternative and that the killing authorised by the licence will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the seal population at a favourable conservation status in their natural range:

Marine Protected Areas (MPA) – a well-managed MPA network can play a crucial role in the conservation of both biodiversity and geodiversity, offering long-term support for the services our seas provide to society. A number of possible Nature Conservation MPAs have been proposed and these areas will provide indirect protection to seals by protecting representative species and habitats in Scotland’s seas. A number of MPAs protect sandeels and sandeel habitat, a species that is an important component in the diet of various species including seals. 19 designated seal haul-out sites are included within the boundaries of possible MPAs:

The interrelationships between these sites can be established by consulting NMPi:

Why are seals not protected at all times and in all locations?

It would be impossible to designate all areas where seals haul-out because these depend entirely on the behaviour of individual seals. It would also entail the risks of preventing the use of non-lethal deterrent measures as an alternative to shooting and of potentially resulting in unintended restrictions on wildlife tourism, public access and leisure activities The Scottish Government considers the designation of specific key haul-out sites to protect seals at their most vulnerable a suitable  and proportionate measure in these circumstances.