Seals are frequent visitors to the coastlines of Britain and Northern Ireland. They use a wide variety of different coastal habitats from sandy beaches to rocky shores. Britain’s seal populations are present all year round due to the rich feeding grounds. The two species of seal which inhabit British waters are the Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the Harbour Seal (Phoca vinulina). The two species are very similar in habitat preferences and behaviours. They spend a lot of time at sea to feed and build up fat reserves. The majority of their time on land is spent breeding, moulting and resting in “haul out zones.”
Haul out zones is the name for an area of land in which seals spend a large period on the shore. These areas are protected under the Conservation of Habitats and Species regulations 2017. Both seal species are also protected between 0 to 200 nautical miles on the coast line and at sea under the same legislation. These regulations protect the seals from unauthorised culls and disturbance.
Harbour seals are more frequently hauled out in the summer months as they breed in June/ July and moult in August. Harbour seals prefer shallower waters for hunting and are more inclined to make shorter feeding trips from their haul out zones, so they are more frequent in visiting a few specific haul out zones.
Grey seals on the other hand, breed between September and December and moult between February to April. They travel further distances when hunting and often have different haul out zones throughout the year. These behaviours behaviour patterns are complimentary and have evolved into conflicting ecological niches. Yet there are studies where the seals habits have overlapped and they share haul out zones for similar purposes.
Seal populations around the UK have remained relatively stable with occasional periods of growth. There was though to be around 36,500 Harbour Seals and 111,600 Grey Seals in the UK in 2014. These are healthy populations of both species. However, if rogue seals are proven to damage equipment belonging to fisheries, then the fishery company is permitted to gain a licence to destroy the rogue seals responsibly and humanly. These numbers are regulated to ensure that the population of seals are not harmed from the culls.
However, there are conflicts between seals and a large variety of human activity. Seals can be killed easily by being hit by boats, accidental injury while at sea and unlawful culls. Some haul out zones are not protected so the seals can be disturbed by humans getting close and spooking the seals.There is often irresponsible behaviour around seals by the public, especially during the breeding season when the males are very aggressive. One such example is when are off the lead and get too close and being injured or killed by an aggressive seal leading to anger from pet owners. The populations are also disturbed by increase of noise pollution and waste in the water and washed up on the beaches which are unfortunately frequently occurring.
It is difficult to find a balance to provide adequate protection for these frequent shore dwellers which do not greatly effect a lively hood of shareholders. Seal conservation is not so regularly subject to public scrutiny or behaviour etiquette around haul out populations compared to that of protected bird species or whale species on the coast lines or in the UK waters. Licenses for authorised killing of rogue seals effecting fisheries are highly regulated and scrutinised. Then why isn’t the same principle applied to the protection of haul out zones?
If you are visiting a seal population, there should be a few simple guidelines to follow;
- Keep a large distance between you and the seals at all times, especially during the breeding season.
- Avoid venturing into the water where seals may be swimming to the haul out zone.
- Keep dogs on a lead at all times and children under supervision.
- Boats should be driven slowly around haul out zones so as not to harm any seals swimming near the boat.
- All litter or hazardous materials should not be dumped near or at a haul out zone.
- Report any signs of unauthorised seal killings to the police.