The status of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in the United Kingdom

David Thompson, Callan David Duck, Michael Edward Lonergan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


The UK holds approximately 40% of the European harbour seal population, with the majority found around the coasts of Scotland. Harbour seal populations in the UK have been monitored through a series of repeated aerial surveys of animals hauled out during the annual moult in early August. This moult count is used as a consistent index of population size. Survey methods and frequencies vary. The Scottish and English east coast populations mainly haulout in tidal estuaries and are surveyed annually, using fixed wing aircraft and digital photography. Populations in north and west Scotland often haulout on rocky shores and are surveyed less frequently, using helicopters fitted with thermal imagers. Overall, the most recent minimum estimate of the UK harbour seal population is 24,250 seals of which 19,800 are in Scotland, 3,200 in England and 1,250 in Northern Ireland. The results show that the number of harbour seals in eastern England was increasing before the 1988 and 2002 phocine distemper (PDV) epidemic but has not increased since the end of the 2002 epidemic. There is also evidence of a general decline in most of the large harbour seal colonies around Scotland. The populations along the north and north-west mainland coast were an exception, with numbers appearing to be stable. Between 2001 and 2008, the population in Orkney declined by 67% and Shetland declined by 40%, indicating harbour seals in these areas experienced substantially increased mortality or very low recruitment over this period. The widespread declines, ranging from Shetland to The Wash, suggest that the causes may have been present over a large part of the North Sea and waters off western Scotland.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-128
Number of pages12
JournalNAMMCO Scientific Publications
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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