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Do ‘rogue’ seals exist?

Implications for seal conservation in the UK


A team of researchers have found that tactics used by land management professionals in

removing “problem” species from an ecosystem are not based on empirical evidence. Their

research involves two protected animals indigenous to waterways in the UK, seals and salmon.

Some of the techniques used by these land management professionals involve killing or

removing “problem” seals from locales. These seals have been thought to be a source of

predation for protected salmon that live in these waterways. Removing the seals is thought to be

of greater environmental benefit than allowing them to prey on the salmon. The researchers

hypothesized that the animals removed from ecosystems were not always the animals who were

preying on the salmon. It was thought the these animals were simply in the wrong place at the

wrong time and that is the only reason that the seals were being killed or removed.

Materials and Methods

A study was conducted over the course of 3 years, from 2005 to 2008, where scientists

observed seals in three discrete waterways in Scotland: Rivers Conon, Kyle of Sutherland and

Ness. The researches conducted at least three surveys a month in 1.5 – 2.5 hour increments.

During these surveys the scientist covered swaths of land around the waterways looking for

seals. Once a seal was spotted the sighting was recorded and a total of all seals observed was

notated by rolling number average per season.

Researchers would identify individual seals and keep track of whether the same seals

were habitually returning to the same locale or if it was different seals visiting similar locations.

They identified seals by facial markings, identification was verified by two separate scientist

based on a scale of similarity. Only the most similar looking seals were counted as an individual.
Furthermore, the researchers were unable determine whether a seal was an individual depending

on whether the seal was seen from the right or the left side. These portrait angles would be

counted as individuals.

These physical surveys were aiding by photography. Once a seal was spotted the

researchers took pictures of them. Outside of the typical 1.5 – 2.5 hour surveys the scientists

would photograph the seals opportunistically.

When land management professionals removed problem seals from locales the

researchers would collect data on the seals. Researchers would collect data from seal bodies

within 24 hours of them being killed and analyze their innards for salmon DNA. The scientists

would also examine seals in estuaries; specifically, they would observe their fecal matter and

look for the salmon DNA.


The results of the study showed that the seals who lived in locations were salmon were

active were preying on those salmon. The observations indicating that these seals were in fact

problematic and had built a large part of their diet around the predation of the protected salmon.

Samples collected from seals in estuaries verified that there was no salmon DNA in the

bodies of seals living away from the salmon. Every seal that had been shot or captured was

proven to have had salmon DNA within them. The photographs taken by the researchers further

proved that these problem seals were the same individuals.


The evidence that shows that the seals living near salmon hot spots is enough to enable

land management professionals to continue with their techniques of removing problem animals.
The study was important in verifying that the practice these professionals were abiding by was

actually doing good for the protected salmon species as well as the seals.
Graham, I. M., Harris, R. N., Matejusova, I., & Middlemas, S. J. (2011). Do ‘rogue’ seals exist? Implications
for seal conservation in the UK. Animal Conservation, 587-598.