Sightseers 'causing undue seal stress' in Aberdeenshire
Concerns are growing about sightseers causing undue stress to a vast colony of seals on a beach in Aberdeenshire.
The mouth of the River Ythan is a protected site for the grey seals to rest and breed.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is becoming increasingly worried about the number of mass stampedes of the seals caused be people getting too close.
SNH told BBC Scotland's Landward it was up to the authorities to decide what would constitute an offence.
As well as being an important refuelling stop for many migratory birds, Forvie National Nature Reserve is home to thousands of grey seals.
Watching them from the south side of the estuary at Newburgh beach is allowed and popular.
However the issue arises when people - some walking dogs - stray onto the same side of the beach as the seals.
Lee Watson, from the Ythan Seal Watch group, said: "Before we started raising awareness through the Seal Watch page, we were filming anything from 10 to 20 disturbances a day at the weekend.
"As soon as dogs are there the seals become agitated and then that's the start of the stampede.
"The worst we've seen probably is two dog walkers who come round the front of the fence and along the back of the beach with the seals there and they've put close to 2,000 seals completely off the beach, in fact the entire colony gone.
"Seals are warm blooded mammals so they can spend two or three days out on a beach and then when they're disturbed into the cold water they can suffer shock. If the seals are moulting it can also delay the moulting process.
"So it means they can take longer to moult and can become overburdened with already existing parasites, they can become ill and they need to be picked up and rescued. So it can have quite serious problems for them."
Gavin Clark, operations manager for Tayside and Grampian with SNH, said: "A lot of visitors come to the reserve, and the vast majority will respect the signs, but there's always one or two who perhaps don't see them or maybe they think they know better, and that the sign doesn't apply to them.
"So the seals are protected from being harassed and that's usually taken as meaning a reckless or deliberate act.
"As far as we're aware there haven't been any prosecutions and it is that distinction between disturbance and harassment.
"The offence that applies to the seal haul-out is deliberate or reckless harassment of the seals. Of course it's up to the courts or the police to decide what would constitute an offence."
You can see more on this story on Landward on Thursday on the BBC Scotland channel at 20:30, or Friday on BBC One Scotland at 19:30.