Where will you find seals?

In the sea, obviously! But seriously, seals like to spend plenty of time on land too. There’s two types of species 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. Their faces have a wee bit of resemblance to a dog’s. They like to make their home on sheltered beaches and coastal areas. Usually, they are grey but there are rare white, blonde and black ones 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.

Threats to seals

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 brittle ecosystem, is creating new challenges for all seals.

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

What’s in a seal’s diet?

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, sandeels, 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 sandeels.

Spotted a seal on a beach?

With so much coast, it’s not unusual to see seals on Scotland’s beaches. If you see one, maintain a safe distance – 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. If a seal is on land but distressed or injured, a dog could drive it back to the water and seriously harm it. Mothers leave their pups ashore whilst they forage, and if you disturb the seal it is likely the mum will abandon it.

Think you’ve found a seal pup in need?

Our animal helpline can be reached on 03000 999 999.

Please do not approach a seal that has come ashore or try to put back in the water. Stay a safe distance away and keep any dogs on a lead. 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 it is probably still suckling from its 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 it may need our help.

What happens after a seal rescue?

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 the seal until it is of the strength and age to survive at sea. 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.