Shetland Life: Editorial

The cruelty of animals

The case of convicted seal basher Jimmy Stewart is a fascinating and hugely emotive one. It is a story that seems to have deeply divided Shetlanders in their views, both on the crime and the punishment.

Personally, I find myself unable to feel very strongly about either. What Stewart did was objectionable, for me, not because it was cruel – knocking animals on the head seems a fairly effective way to kill them – but because it was pointless. There was no defensible reason for the act, and that was highlighted by the feeble and implausible claim of ignorance that was used in court. The more likely reason for what he did – habit – would have sounded feebler still.

But anyway, Stewart broke the law and he got caught. I would have thought some kind of environmentally-orientated community service would have been a cheaper and more useful sentence, but clearly the sheriff had other ideas. Either way, I suspect he won’t be doing it again.

What has surprised me, though, has been the level of feeling expressed by some people over this issue. The ongoing debate in the pages of Shetlink has resounded with vitriol and indignation from both sides. And last weekend I was astonished to witness a rant on the subject almost collapse into a fight. This is a story that is worth recounting . . .

Last Friday, I was enjoying an evening in one of Lerwick’s many fine public houses, accompanied by some friends, when I was approached by an employee of a large salmon farming company. He shook my hand, sat down beside me, and proceeded to talk, demanding that, since I was a journalist, I should listen to him and write down what he had to say. I should, he said, write a story about seal-killing from the perspective of a salmon farmer.

I tried to protest that, firstly, I wasn’t a proper journalist; secondly, it was nearly twelve on a Friday evening; thirdly, I was perfectly happy listening to the splendid live country music provided by the establishment, and I wasn’t really interested in talking about seals; but the man insisted.

And so, to the best of my recollection, and without any adjustments or comments from me, what follows is one salmon farmer’s perspective on the case of Jimmy Stewart.

Killing seals was not cruel, I was told. In fact, contrary to the media depiction of Mr Stewart as the bad guy in the story, it was actually the seals that were the bad guys. It was not him who was cruel, but them.

Seals will deliberately try to get into cages packed full of farmed salmon, my companion informed me. And once inside, they will bite these fish. And because they are then unable to escape through the net they will continue to swim round and round the cage, biting more and more fish, until the farmer arrives and shoots the animal. So not only is the seal cruel to the caged fish by biting them, it is cruel to the farmer who put the fish in the cage by wasting his money. This is a double assault on moral decency by the now-dead seal.

My new friend did concede that Jimmy Stewart was not actually a salmon farmer but a wealthy pelagic fisherman. However, he also set creels, and that was more or less the same thing.

At this stage a man from the next table grabbed my companion by the collar and told him to stop speaking rubbish (those were not his exact words). Voices were raised and tempers suddenly flared. I hastily turned round and detached myself from the situation, which, fortunately, did resolve itself without recourse to violence.

Truly, it is astonishing what can be learned in the pub.

* * *

Recently a delegation was sent to try and flog the idea of Shetland as a lovely place to live to disillusioned city types. Apparently they did very well.

It occurred to me though that, in future, rather than going to London to find new Shetlanders, it might be cheaper and more sensible to try and make our own young people feel more welcome here. Perhaps then they might stay, or even come back home after studying away. It was just a thought.

Malachy Tallack


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