Different eras, different values
There are many who will applaud the sentence handed down this week to Whalsay man Jimmy Stewart, who took it upon himself to kill 21 seal pups on the small isle of East Linga, and no doubt some who will bemoan the leniency of his 80-day jail sentence.
There will also be many people, perhaps some of an older generation, who will be sitting in complete disbelief as they read the court report in this newspaper. They will recall times when the killing of seals was regarded as perfectly normal behaviour, and their skins, meat and oil were viewed as a valuable addition by way of subsistence.
There is no doubt that what Stewart did was wrong, but to portray him as some kind of evil monster, as the organisations and individuals which seem to value animal life on a par with human life will certainly do, is entirely inappropriate.
It was suggested that an appropriate punishment could have been a hefty fine plus a community service order. Forcing Stewart to pay something back to the isles whose name he blackened, in the form of a few hundred hours of unpaid labour, would appear to have better fitted the crime, whereas sending him to prison for a few weeks will simply cost more money.
Ironically, it appears that while Stewart was convicted for breaching the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, which prohibits the slaughter of seals, he probably caused less cruelty than those who can legally kill the animals under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. That legislation makes it possible for fishermen and salmon farmers to shoot lactating females, leaving pups to starve to death over a week or more.
Society and the court should certainly not tolerate barbaric treatment of wildlife, and acts considered acceptable decades ago are now rightly punished.
That is clear enough, as is the fact that Shetland’s PR has suffered greatly because of a few minutes of madness.
But equally, society and the court should not tolerate vicious assaults by humans against each other. It becomes very difficult to endorse sending a man to prison for killing seals, when another may be put on probation or given community service for stabbing or stamping on someone’s head.