Police are investigating the deaths of six common seals which were found washed up on the shoreline at Bridge of Walls earlier this month.
Animal welfare charity the Scottish SPCA said three of the seals, found at Mara Ness, had clear exit wounds to the head and the other three were too decomposed to be able to determine the cause of death. SSPCA is leading the investigation and said two of the female seals were carrying large pups.
Seals are protected year-round in Shetland under an additional conservation order which supplements the Conservation of Seals Act.
SSPCA senior inspector Ron Patterson, who is based in Shetland, attended the scene on Monday and said he believed there may be more seal carcasses washed up in other areas which have yet to be discovered.
Wildlife organisations view the unlawful killing of seals as particularly serious because of a drastic decline in the population of the mammals over the past decade.
The St Andrews-based Sea Mammal Research Unit estimates that the population of common seals has fallen by around 40 per cent since 2000 and believes the increasing presence of predatory killer whales in the waters around Shetland could be a factor in the decline.
In addition, organisations like the SSPCA and SNH have consistently criticised what they view as widespread incidences of unlicensed and illegal killing of seals.
John Uttley of SNH said he believed the seals were found around 10 days ago and police were contacted last week.
“They can be shot with a licence, but you do need a licence to shoot them and there is no licence in this case,” said Mr Uttley. “We don’t have a clue who has done it, but whoever did do it has made no attempt to hide the animals.”
Mr Patterson said the incident was a “serious wildlife crime” and called for any possible witnesses to come forward.
“Common seal numbers are decreasing and the illegal shooting of seals is a contributing factor,” he said. “In fact, it’s almost wrong to call these animals common seals because they are gradually becoming a rare sight in the waters around Shetland.
“Shooting a seal at any time of year is a very cruel and callous act, but June is the time when common seals are actively breeding and having their pups.
“It’s not only the adult seals that are killed, but any unborn pups are slowly starved of oxygen and any orphaned newborn pups are sentenced to a lingering death of starvation as they cannot possibly survive the early days without their mother’s milk.
“It is also likely once the pups are in a weakened state, but still alive, they will be attacked by birds which inevitably means the birds will attack the softest part of their bodies first while still alive. This is nearly always their eyes.”
Anyone with information related to the recent shootings can contact SSPCA’s animal helpline on 03000 999 999, call the Shetland Wildlife Rescue Unit on (01595) 840321 or get in touch with police in Lerwick on (01595) 692110.