It is estimated that there are around 3,500 grey seals around Shetland and that the figure has remained largely static for over three decades, in contrast to the picture nationally where numbers are estimated to have doubled in the past 50 years.
East Linga is one of the few suitable sites for breeding grey seals in Shetland and accounts for up to 50 per cent of the pups born in the Whalsay area, with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) estimating that the 21 pups beaten to death amount to up to one third of the Whalsay pup production.
Grey seals, which unlike common seals cannot swim until they are a few weeks old and have fattened up on their mothers’ milk, are particularly vulnerable to disturbance during pupping but are protected under the 1970 Conservation of Seals Act, which states that it is illegal to kill any grey seal by any means during the period from 1st September to 31st December. Individual seals which cause damage to fishing nets outwith that period can legally be killed using a rifle.
SNH says the number of pups surviving in Shetland each year is “very variable” and strongly influenced by the weather. The organisation says the population “appears to be self-regulating” due to the limited availability of suitable pupping sites, and that any human interference during the critical weaning stage can prove disastrous for pups through mother abandonment and subsequent starvation.
SNH area manager John Uttley said this week’s case could do serious damage to the isles’ reputation in the wider world. “Shetland’s positive image depends to a large part on its wildlife, including seals. These animals help to attract people and business to the islands and many people feel a strong connection with them. Conflicts do sometimes arise with people’s business but there are legitimate ways of resolving these.”
He added: “Of course we hope that this is an isolated case.”
The perception persists that many fisherman think of seals as a pest, though no-one in the fishing industry seemed prepared to talk about the matter publicly this week.
Shetland Fishermen’s Association chairman Hansen Black said he did not want to make any comment because there was no connection between the case and the fishing industry.
One source said it was nonsense to suggest the fishing industry did not get along with seals because fishermen on pelagic boats can often be seen feeding mackerel to seals in Lerwick Harbour, adding that culling them is “just not something that fishermen do” and any suggestion that that served as Mr Stewart’s motivation was “seriously misguided”.