Scotland’s harbour seals are doing well overall but there remains a divide between east and west coast populations, according to new statistics.
NatureScot has published the results of the fifth full census of the country’s harbour seals over the past 25 years.
The Scottish Government agency’s estimates, based on the latest surveys, suggest total populations in Scotland of around 37,300 harbour seals and 106,300 grey seals.
The data show that for harbour seals, there remain striking differences in population trends between different regions.
Northern and eastern coasts have seen significant declines since the early 2000s, with the most dramatic changes occurring around Orkney, in Shetland, and in the Firth of Tay and Eden Estuary.
In contrast, numbers in the west have been either stable or increasing. The latest counts show that more than three quarters of all harbour seals in Scotland are currently found in the west.
Morven Carruthers, NatureScot marine ecologist, said: “This latest full census confirms the geographic east-west divide in the populations of harbour seals that we have seen over the last 20 years.
“Scotland currently holds around a quarter of all harbour seals found in Europe, so this long-term monitoring is crucial for helping us to identify population trends and work towards an understanding of what is behind them.
“This in turn will ensure we can better conserve and manage our important harbour seal populations.”
The changes mark a significant shift since the 1990s when Orkney and Shetland were the most important regions in Scotland for harbour seals.
Between 2016 and 2019 almost the entire Scottish coastline was surveyed by helicopter by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews.
During the most recent survey in August 2019, 26,846 harbour seals and 25,412 grey seals were counted – the second-highest total ever recorded for harbour seals and the highest for grey seals.