Watersport visitors to a loch in the Highlands are being warned to keep their distance from seals after a series of recent incidents.
According to NatureScot, a paddleboarder was reported to have landed on a sandbank at Loch Fleet to try to take a selfie with seals.
The agency is now warning people not to get too close and avoid disturbing the animals at this time of year while harbour seals have pups who could be separated from their mothers and be abandoned, stranded or orphaned.
If people are also rushing to see killer whales, not realising there may be a seal haul-out below or in front of them, the seals can flush into the water while the predator approaches, leaving them without any chance of escape.
Adam Rose, NatureScot’s Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve manager, said: “We don’t usually have an issue with watersports, but there has been a surge in use of paddleboards, canoes and kayaks on the loch since lockdown eased.
“With the combination of summer holidays, good weather, lots of places to launch at Loch Fleet and the short distance to seal haul-out sites on the nature reserve, we’re really concerned about how the seals could be affected.
“We all love to watch wildlife, but we also need to protect it. We’re asking people to stay well clear of the seal haul-out sites.
“The best place to watch the seals is from the shore at the laybys near Skelbo Castle.
“If you are out on the water then stay at least 150 metres away and if one or two heads come up, that means you’re close enough.
“The tide and currents can be very strong on Loch Fleet, so take particular care if you’re out on the water.”
Paddleboards, kayaks and canoes may disturb seals more than motorised boats because seals will be unaware until they are too close.
With a motorised boat, seals will often hear the engine and start to react from a greater distance, giving the boat operator time to stop and back off if needed.
Loch Fleet is one of 194 designated areas around Scotland where seals come ashore to rest, moult, breed and have pups.
Ben Ross, NatureScot’s head of protected areas and nature reserves, said: “It is wonderful to the see people increasingly discovering, appreciating and enjoying nature as we emerge from the pandemic.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect these amazing assets, and we’d like to thank the vast majority of our visitors for caring for and protecting the environment and respecting others’ rights when they’re out in the countryside.
“We’ve seen quite a difference so far this spring and summer, and encourage visitors to our nature reserves and to the countryside more widely to continue to play their part.”
Paddleboards and canoes have also caused issues at the Loch of the Lowes, where ospreys are known to breed, with a similar appeal for caution from the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
An account for the Perthshire site tweeted about “two separate incidences of people coming on to the loch” on Thursday.
Emma Castle-Smith, visitor centre assistant manager at Lowes, said: “The warning signs are there to protect wildlife on the reserve.
“As well as ospreys, there are a wide range of other species that come to Lowes to breed, such as great-crested grebes, and disturbing them at this critical time of year can massively affect their chances of breeding success.
“Choosing to ignore these warning signs also ruins the responsible wildlife watching experience that thousands of people come here to enjoy each year.”
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