Study begins into decline of harbour seals around Shetland coastline

Spot the difference between the harbour or common seal (left) and the grey seal. Image courtesy of St Andrews University.
Spot the difference between the harbour or common seal (left) and the grey seal. Image courtesy of St Andrews University.

Researchers have arrived in Shetland to begin a year-long survey of harbour or common seals around the Scottish coastline in a bid to understand why populations have declined markedly in recent years.

As part of a project funded by the Scottish government, a team from the University of St Andrews’ Scottish Oceans Institute will examine the seals’ diet.

Despite conservation efforts, surveys have shown widespread declines of harbour seals around the UK, most precipitously around the Northern Isles. It is hoped that this study will help to understand the cause of the drop.

Researcher Lindsay Wilson, of the Sea Mammal Reserach Unit, will be in Shetland until next Tuesday to collect seal faeces samples which can then be analysed to determine what and how much seals eat. The sampling will allow the research team to identify species, regional and temporal differences in diet.

She said: “There have been dramatic declines in the number of harbour seals in Scotland over the last eight years, particularly in Orkney and Shetland.”

She said there were a number of possible reasons for the decline – including the prevalence of killer whales, a change in diet and competition from the more common grey seals – but no firm understanding of what is going on.

“The problem is that we do not know what they are eating. This study will result in the first Scotland-wide assessment of harbour seal diet and presents a valuable opportunity to assess diet competition between grey and harbour seals at the same time.”

The Scottish Oceans Institute opened at the University of St Andrews last year, bringing together over 300 staff to help to lead research of Scotland’s oceans, assess the effects of climate change, monitor marine life and advise the government.


Add Your Comment

Add Your Comment

Please note, it is the policy of The Shetland Times to publish comments and letters from named individuals only. Both forename and surname are required.

Comments are moderated. Contributors must observe normal standards of decency and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The views expressed are those of contributors and not of The Shetland Times.

The Shetland Times reserves the right to decline or remove any contribution without notice or stating reason.

Comments are limited to 200 words but please email longer articles or letters to for consideration and include a daytime telephone number and your address. If emailing information in confidence please put "Not for publication" in both the subject line and at the top of the main message.

200 words left

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.