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Orcas are thriving off coast of Scotland, citizen science project finds

© Keith Hodgins A killer whale, one of a pod of orcas spotted in the River Clyde near Dunoon
A killer whale, one of a pod of orcas spotted in the River Clyde near Dunoon

Killer whales are becoming a more common sight off the coast of Scotland as a citizen science project has established their numbers are much higher than were previously thought.

Three new pods of orcas have been identified living near Scotland’s north coast, and a separate group is known to travel as far as Cornwall.

A Scottish Government study has been launched to track them, as they are thought to be feasting on seals.

Thousands of wildlife enthusiasts are now reporting sightings which are being collated by experts so the data can be analysed.

Julia Sutherland, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews who is monitoring the orcas’ habits in a four-year study, said: “They collect photos, they collect drone footage. And, through them, we have learned that, actually, there are far more pods present than previously thought.”

It had been thought that the UK had just one resident pod of orcas, which was the far-ranging group known as the west coast community.

But Hugh Harrop, a naturalist from Shetland Wildlife, said: “We can now identify that some of the pods in Scotland are indeed resident or semi-resident.

“We’ve now got three pods that we refer to as a Northern Isles community. It is encouraging.”

The research, being carried out alongside NatureScot and Marine Scotland, is aiming to establish whether orcas are a factor in the declining numbers of harbour seals.