Protected Species

Animal name: Seal

Type: Mammal

Habitat: Coastal areas

Diet: A variety of sea life

Lifespan: 20 - 35 years

Active: During the day throughout the year

Family: Male is called a bull

Female is called a cow

Babies/young are called pups


Where do you find seals?

Seals spend a lot of their time in the sea but will come ashore to rest, moult or breed at locations known as ‘haul-outs’. There are two types of seals living in Scotland – harbour seals (sometimes known as common seals) and grey seals. You’ll find them all along Scotland’s coasts. The bulk of the UK’s population of both harbour seals and grey seals can be found in Scottish waters.

Harbour seals are smaller than grey seals and typically weigh up to 100kg. Harbour seals have a rounded, dog-like head with steep forehead and eyes to the front of their face. They like to make their home on sheltered beaches and coastal areas. Usually, they are grey but you may spot a rare white, blonde or black one too. Harbour seals can be found in many places, but particularly on Scotland’s islands in the far north, such as the Hebrides, and our west coast. They birth pups in early summer.

Grey seals are larger than harbour seals and adult males can weigh over 300kg. They are usually grey with dark marking and spots. They prefer more exposed waters and coasts and, outside of breeding season, they forage in areas close to the open sea. Pregnant grey seals return to breeding sites every autumn to give birth.

What do they eat?

Harbour seals normally feed within a maximum of 50km of where they haul out from. They like their seafood and their diet includes a wide variety of sea life, such as herring, whitefish, sand eels, octopus and squid.

Grey seals eat fish mostly, and like harbour seals they enjoy whitefish such as cod and haddock. They’ll also eat flatfish such as plaice or flounder and will prey on sand eels.

What threats do seals face?

Seals face a host of challenges from both nature and human activity. Bad weather can make the sea a rough, dangerous place, and it is not unusual for pups to be separated from their mother by choppy waters. Being thrown around by the sea can also cause injuries to seals. Both species found in Scotland face multiple disease risks too.

The main threats from humans are pollution from man-made disasters such as oil spills. Fishing nets and fish farms pose a serious danger too. We’ve sadly rescued seals caught up angling gear and have dealt with cases of seals being collateral damage from industrial fish farming. Climate change, and the impact this has on prey and our ecosystem, is creating new challenges for all seals.

Both harbour and grey seals are protected by the Conservation of Seals Act 1970.

What common problems/reasons lead to seals being cared by the Scottish SPCA?

It’s fairly common to see seals resting on land but well-meaning members of the public often mistakenly think they’re ill or have been injured.


I've come across...

An injured or sick seal

With so much coast, it’s not unusual to see seals on Scotland’s beaches.

If you can clearly see that a seal is injured or ill, call our helpline on 03000 999 999.

If you suspect a seal is ill, monitor them from a safe distance and keep dogs on a lead as they can drive seals back to the water and seriously harm them, or cause unnecessary stress.

Signs of ill health include:

  • coughing, sneezing or noisy, rapid breathing and possibly thick mucus coming from the nose
  • wounds or swellings, particularly on flippers
  • cloudy eyes, or thick mucus around them, or possibly one eye kept closed most of the time
  • looking thin, visible ribs, hips and neck and perhaps a rather baggy, wrinkled skin.

A seal showing little response to any disturbance going on around them (although remember they could be soundly asleep) could also be a sign that they need our help.

Orphaned baby seal

Please do not approach a seal pup that has come ashore and do not try to put them back in the water. Stay a safe distance away and keep any dogs or children away from the pup. It is normal for a seal to spend time onshore and seal pups will often be left by their mother whilst she feeds.

If you see a seal with a white, long-haired coat, then they are probably still suckling from their mother and we would advise you to monitor and check regularly for signs of the mother over a 24 hour period. Please be aware the mother will not return to the pup if you stand next to or close to the seal pup.

Please call our helpline immediately on 03000 999 999 if the seal has visible signs of injury, looks skinny or lethargic or has breathing difficulties, as they may need our help.

Dead seal

If you come across a dead seal, please contact the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS).

A beached seal

Did you know that seals spend more time out of the water than in it? They regularly haul out on our coasts to digest their food and rest so it is not uncommon to see a seal on the beach. This is part of their normal behaviour so there’s no reason to think they are ‘stranded’ or in need. A healthy seal should be left alone.

If you see one, maintain a safe distance. Do not approach the seal or let children near. Despite their appearance, they are feisty by nature and can seriously injure you if they feel threatened. They may also be panicked by dogs, so keep yours on a lead if a seal is nearby.

Mothers leave their pups ashore whilst they forage, and if you disturb the seal it is likely the mum will abandon it.

A seal entangled in fishing line

Call our helpline immediately on 03000 999 999.

Seals can become entangled in fishing gear and other debris. Some nets and lines can be hard to see, but could be caught around the neck, flippers and body. Sometimes seals can have nasty wounds due to fishing gear and marine debris cutting into their bodies.


How do we help seals at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre?

We take any seals in need to our National Wildlife Rescue Centre. In a typical year, we care for over 100 seal pups.

Our dedicated team will then treat and care for seal pups until they are old enough and strong enough to be released back into the wild. We have a purpose-built seal unit as well as outdoor pools to help them build up their sea-flippers. We also feed seal pups in a way that shows them how they hunt prey in the wild, maximising the chances of a successful reintegration to life on the coastline.

All our seal releases are carefully planned and will take place where we are confident the seal can join a healthy seal colony.

Additional Details

Both harbour and grey seals are protected by the Conservation of Seals Act 1970.

To report a dead seal to SMASS, please phone/text 07979 245893 or email

When reporting a stranding, please try to provide the following information:

  • Date found
  • Location (grid reference if possible)
  • Photographs of the carcass
  • Species or description
  • Overall length (estimation)
  • Condition of the animal
  • Your contact details


SMASS may be sampled or collected for necropsy if they are recently deceased. More information can be found here: