A Whalsay fisherman who admitted clubbing 21 grey seal pups to death with a fencepost on a small remote island was told he may be facing a prison sentence when he appeared in court this week.
Jimmy Stewart, 47, of Saltness, Symbister, who is a crewman on the Altaire, one of the UK’s biggest pelagic fishing boats, admitted mutilating, beating and crushing the young mammals on East Linga, near Whalsay, on 29th November last year. All charges against his co-defendant John Eunson, 44, also from Symbister, were dropped.
On Wednesday Lerwick Sheriff Court heard the dead pups were discovered by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) workers who happened to be on a boat in the area undertaking an annual survey at the time and spotted Stewart repeatedly striking the seals on the head with a wooden fencepost using “extreme violence”.
He offered no explanation for what he had done and Sheriff Graeme Napier warned Stewart that a custodial sentence of up to six months was a possibility and called for reports. If he is not sent to prison, he could be liable to a fine of up to £5,000 for each mammal killed, a total of £105,000, under the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.
Procurator fiscal Duncan MacKenzie said East Linga was recognised as one of the few breeding sites for grey seals in Shetland where mothers and pups were able to move up the shoreline to minimise the risk of being washed away in stormy weather, meaning that pups born there had a better chance of survival.
He said a number of SNH employees had seen Stewart bringing the fencepost down violently four or five times before he appeared to run off in an attempt to hide. “What they were seeing was effectively an unofficial cull,” he said. When they returned to the scene with staff from the SSPCA, a search of a “fairly extended area” revealed the 21 corpses.
Each carcass was examined and all were found to have extensive head injuries, with severe depressions on the head “consistent with repeated blows on the head”. “One effectively had its face moulded into the rock it was lying on, such had been the impact,” the fiscal said.
When two of the mammals were taken away for post-mortem examination, they were found to be in very good body condition but with depressions of the skull and their brains turned to pulp. One of the brains was “not recognisable but for a small pool of tissue”. It was also found that their deaths had “not been instantaneous” and that the pups had healthy levels of blubber, meaning there could be no suggestion they had been abandoned by their mothers.
Stewart was quickly identified and detained on 4th December before being taken to Lerwick Police Station and interviewed at length. He maintained throughout that the sole reason for his actions had been out of “concern and compassion for their suffering, which he had been determined to end”, but Mr MacKenzie said it had simply been “an act of wanton cruelty” and there had been no legitimate reason for the seals to be culled in a “barbaric fashion”.
Defence agent Tommy Allan said Stewart, a married man with three children aged between 20 and 24, could offer no explanation for what he had done, though in mitigation he had pleaded guilty at the first possible opportunity. As well as being a fisherman, he has been a crofter since the age of 16 and keeps a small number of sheep in East Linga.
The court heard that Stewart had been waiting for a break in the weather to travel to the island for several weeks before travelling there in late November. Mr Allan said his client now accepted that the animals were healthy and “this was something he should not have done”. “He has instructed me not to put forward any reason for doing this.”
In light of that, sheriff Napier asked if he should “just treat him as someone who enjoys inflicting pain on animals”, or if the motivating factor had anything to do with the fact that he was a fisherman, some of whom saw seals as “vermin” or pests?
Mr Allan replied that because he was a pelagic fisherman there was no interaction with seals in the course of his work and that Stewart had previously had to observe dead pups on East Linga during the winter months.
“But he accepts that doesn’t give him the right to take matters into his own hands. He realises this was a big mistake and he certainly won’t do it again. He has been the focus of quite a lot of media attention [and] while he has been a matter of fun for some members of the community, it has not been a joke he has been willing to share.”
He also disputed that his client had “run away” having been spotted by the SNH team, stating that he had finished the other work he had to do and then left the island “in the way that he planned”.
Stewart had sentence deferred until 25th March and his bail has been continued pending social inquiry and community service reports.
Sheriff Napier told Stewart that he took a very serious view of what he had done and could “see no justification whatsoever, even in layman’s terms” for his crime.
Stewart, who did not speak during the case other than to confirm his name, refused to make any comment as he left court on Wednesday.
SNH commended the handling of the case by police and said it deplored the “destructive and senseless attack” on the seal pups. Area manager John Uttley said: “This is a shocking case. The degree of casual cruelty shows that there is still a great deal of ignorance and prejudice about grey seals. The brutality described in today’s case towards wildlife besmirches Shetland’s reputation as a place which treasures its nature and wildlife and we are pleased to see the court respond accordingly.”
SNH area officer Karen Hall, who was in court on Wednesday, said afterwards that there was no defence for Stewart’s actions and it was clear that any notion the pups had been abandoned was “just nonsense”. She said: “If he had genuine concerns he would have been in touch with the SSPCA or ourselves. We take numerous calls from members of the public.”
“We’ve all heard rumours of wildlife crime incidents. I never believed it would be quite as bad as what we found. We will be continuing with our monitoring to report any wildlife crimes – we’re not going to sit back and ignore situations like this,” she added.
A police spokesman said the force was pleased with the outcome and thanked the fiscal, SNH, the SSPCA and veterinary services for their assistance during the investigation. He stated: “It was a thorough investigation into a serious case of cruelty to animals which was followed by a robust prosecution. As a force, we are committed to a pro-active approach to wildlife crime. It will not be tolerated.”