Whalsay fisherman and crofter Jimmy Stewart, 47, has been jailed for 80 days for bludgeoning 21 grey seal pups to death with a fence post.
Sheriff Graeme Napier decided to send him to prison on Wednesday when he appeared for sentencing at Lerwick Sheriff Court despite receiving a sheaf of letters from members of the community vouching for Stewart’s good character. In fact, at least one letter may not have helped his cause by claiming that seals were essentially “surplus to requirements”, which the sheriff took exception to.
The opposite public reaction to Stewart’s crime also surfaced in court when it emerged that he had been subjected to a hate campaign since pleading guilty last month, which included a death threat letter sent along with an Action Man-style doll which was spattered in red paint and had its throat cut.
Stewart, a first offender, of Saltness, Symbister, was caught after a boat party of Scottish Natural Heritage employees saw him clubbing the seal pups on a beach on 29th November as they passed the remote isle of East Linga, where he keeps sheep. At his previous court appearance he was warned he could face jail after admitting causing unnecessary suffering in breach of the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.
Defence agent Tommy Allan told the court his client fully accepted responsibility for what he had done. He had acted out of ignorance and was “deeply sorry” for the distress caused to people and to the seals.
“Mr Stewart has done a bad thing,” Mr Allan said, “but I would submit that he is not necessarily a bad man.”
Attempting to explain Stewart’s behaviour that day, Mr Allan said he had come across seal pup carcasses at the island in the past, which he thought was the result of them having being abandoned by their mothers. When he saw the pups alone in November he reached the conclusion they had been abandoned and would starve to death. From the noises and reaction on the beach he thought they were distressed. Since the offence both Mr Allan and his client had learnt a lot more about seals and now understood it was common practice for mothers to leave their pups unattended.
Stewart realised now the pups he killed were healthy and that what he did was wrong, Mr Allan said. It was not the case that he had set out to cause each animal prolonged suffering, although the killing had not been humane and some pups may not have died instantly.
“He didn’t do this for pleasure. Having decided to do what he did he went about it in as quick a way as he could,” Mr Allan said.
He said Stewart had nothing against seals. They did not affect his livelihood or his personal beliefs. “There is no agenda here against seals.”
Mr Allan told the court there were about 3,500 grey seals around Shetland and the population remained steady, although pup mortality could be up to 50 per cent. Not all the pups at East Linga had been massacred because between 10 and 20 were seen there afterwards.
In a bid to avoid jail Stewart offered, as part of a community sentence, to work alongside the people in Shetland who care for seals in trouble and to help monitor the seal population which uses East Linga in future.
References from people who had contacted Mr Allan painted him as someone clearly valued by his community, although they did not condone his actions in East Linga. People benefited from his expertise at lambing time and would be placed in real difficulty if he was not there to help them.
Stewart had 300 sheep of his own which were about to start lambing and if he was jailed it would have a devastating effect on them, Mr Allan said. He said the case had had a profound effect on Stewart, causing his blood pressure to rise and leading to him to avoid social occasions in case his presence led to confrontations which marred the event for others. “He’s been more or less a recluse because of this.”
The huge media interest had also taken its toll and Stewart realised he would be known for ever more for having carried out the crime. Mr Allan said the court dealt with many cases relating to the ugly side of human behaviour, none of which attracted the media interest that the seal case had.
After a long pause Sheriff Napier told Stewart his offence was unusual and very serious but he was not there to sentence him on the basis that his actions had caused heightened emotions in part of the community. His job was to give an unemotional response to the facts of the case. However, society and the court would not tolerate the sort of suffering he had inflicted on the 21 seals.
In his view, because of the seriousness of the offence, and to discourage others, there was no alternative to a custodial sentence, which could have been up to six months. Due to his previous good character he reduced it to 80 days. Stewart stepped from the dock to be handcuffed and taken down to the cells.
Afterwards the Scottish SPCA welcomed the sentence. Shetland inspector Ron Patterson said it reflected the severity of the crime.
“This was a horrific act and it is reassuring to see that what may have been considered acceptable 30 or 40 years ago is now rightly regarded as a criminal act that deserves severe punishment,” Mr Patterson said.
“We hope that this case serves to warn others that this sort of barbaric act against wildlife will no longer be tolerated. These seals would have been worth far more alive than they are dead as the seal colonies around Shetland bring tourism to the island and help sustain our economy.”
A veteran campaigner for seals, John Robins of Animal Concern, said Stewart’s crime was not as cruel as the suffering caused by the legal killing of seals in Scotland by fishermen and salmon farmers under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970.
Mr Robins, who said he was also speaking on behalf of Save Our Seals Fund, said: “What Jimmy Stewart did was indefensible as is the clubbing of seals on the Canadian ice flows but we must not forget that the law in the UK allows far greater suffering to be caused to baby seal pups. Fishermen and salmon farmers can, without fear of prosecution, shoot lactating seal cows leaving their pups to starve to death. These baby seals can take a week or more to die a slow, painful death.”
Mr Robins said it was hypocritical of politicians to condemn seal clubbing without first addressing that law. “The Conservation of Seals Act is a useless piece of legislation which must be replaced by a law which makes it illegal to kill healthy seals in UK waters.”