The public are being urged to give seals space in order to protect them from human disturbance before the Easter weekend.
As lockdown measures ease, the government-backed campaign by the Seal Alliance is asking people to show special caution as seals have ventured further inshore on beaches and coastlines that have become quieter as a result of lockdown.
With people expected to go for coastal walks, take part in water activities or fly drones over the bank holiday weekend, the public are warned that getting too close to seals can lead to injury and even the deaths of mothers and pups up to several months after an encounter.
The “Give Seals Space” campaign urges people to take steps to protect the marine mammals, including staying well away so the seals cannot smell, hear or see humans, taking litter home, never feeding them, and keeping dogs on a lead in areas where seals could be present.
Last week Freddie, a 10-month-old seal pup who had taken up residence on a stretch of the Thames in west London, had to be
put down after a dog attack left him with severe injuries including a broken bone, a dislocated flipper and damage to joints, ligaments and nerves.
The owner of the dog later
apologised for the “terrible accident” and expressed regret that her pet had not been on a lead, which at the time “had not seemed necessary”.
The UK is home to an estimated 38% of the world’s grey seal population and about 30% of the European subspecies of common or harbour seals. In the face of threats including climate change, toxic pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with vessels, plastics and other marine debris, and human disturbance, experts say both species are showing signs of decline in breeding.
Only 25% of young seals survive to the age of 18 months in a bad year and they are most affected by disturbance, such as people being noisy or startling the young animals, which wastes their energy and means they struggle to haul out of the water to rest and digest food.
Female seals are heavily pregnant or pupping during the summer and getting too close can lead to the mammals stampeding on rocks, which can prove fatal to mothers and pups, while disturbed females may also not build the fat reserves they need to feed their young properly.
The campaign includes leaflets and signs for the public and wildlife tour operators with guidance on how to watch seals without disturbing them.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, said disturbance by members of the public was entirely preventable. “I would urge everyone to follow the guidance, give seals the space that they need and respect this vulnerable marine species,” he said.
Urging people to keep themselves downwind, Sue Sayer, of the Seal Research Trust, said: “If a seal is looking at you, it has been disturbed, so please move further away. Use your camera and binoculars, stay quiet and out of sight..”
Andy Ottaway, of the Seal Protection Action Group, said: “Our precious coastal wildlife is coming under increasing human pressure. We need to be aware of the harm we can cause by getting too close to our seals and the often tragic consequences when we do.”