Mass slaughter of 40 seal pups ruled out

Dead seals found wahed up on a beach at Dunlaw.
Dead seals found wahed up on a beach at Dunlaw.

VETS have ruled out any suspicion of foul play after the bodies of around 40 seal pups were discovered by a a couple walking along a remote Berwickshire beach at the weekend.

The dead mammals were found by Edinburgh charity worker Ross Murray and his partner, Christine Mitchell, who were out collecting driftwood close to Fast Castle on Sunday afternoon and there has been some debate on how they came to meet an unfortunate fate.

Ross described his shocking find as “a very unpleasant sight” and with blood found around the head of some of the young pups, there had been some initial suggestion that the deaths were a result of a mass slaughter from fishermen trying to protect their trade, despite seals mostly feeding on species of fish which prey on commercial stocks.

Others pointed the finger at the freak weather conditions experienced in recent weeks.

And speaking to ‘The Berwickshire News’ on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Sea Mammals Research Unit, based at St Andrews University, dismissed any suggestion of foul play, saying it wasn’t unheard of for so many pups to perish as a result of freezing weather over the winter months.

She said: “Although I can understand why the people who found the seals were quite alarmed and thought something untoward may have happened, the amount found is the normal mortality rate for this time of year.

“Around 1400 pups were born on that stretch of coastline last year so to lose around 40 is perfectly normal.

“The weather worsened rapidly at the end of November going into December and that was most likely the contributing factor.

“The sub-zero temperatures could explain why the carcasses found hadn’t deteriorated as rapidly as they normally would.

“One of our vets Simon Moss, who has had 20 years experience with seals, went down to Fast Castle and after examining the bodies, was satisfied there had been no foul play.”

The dead pups were part of a 500 strong colony of grey seals known to frequent waters between Berwick and Edinburgh and although she didn’t know too much about the incident Georgia Conolly, head ranger at St Abbs & Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve, also thought the elements were the most likely cause.

She commented: “With the seals being found on a beach at Fast Castle, quite a distance past St Abbs, it has so far been quite hard for us to find out too much about the deaths.

“Nevertheless, it’s very distressing to hear of so many seal pups being found dead at one time, but there are often high mortality rates over the breeding season.

“People are suggesting the seals perishing could be down to the weather, a virus or an attack, although I’m not aware of any threat to the local seal population from fishermen.

“It would be perfectly feasible for the weather to be the cause. With many seal pups typically born in the winter months, snow on the beaches along the east coast could have caused all sorts of problems for new borns.

“Grey seals are a protected species so to lose so many in one go is a big blow to the population.

“Unfortunately with them being wild creatures there is very little we can do to protect them from the harsh weather that has hit the area in the past month or so.

“Nature can be a cruel beast sometimes.”

Some experts quoted in national papers said the blood found on a few of the pups could have been caused if the seals hit rocks as they were brought into shore. But at the same time they acknowledged that it was unusual to find large numbers beyond the high tide mark, which suggested foul play.

And Andy Ottaway, director of the Seals Protection Action Group, said that taking into account the fact that 5000 seals were killed last year in Scotland alone, 21 in a horrific incident in Shetland, a full investigation was needed to rule out any suspicions of malicious intent.

He commented: “It seems that the scientists think this incident was a natural mortality, exacerbated by the bad weather, as this is a large colony of grey seals and pup deaths are naturally occurring.

“Our concern is that our seals are sadly persecuted, seen (incorrectly) as major competitors for commercial fish-stocks and there have been recent incidents of large numbers of pups deliberately killed such as happened in Shetland last year, when 21 pups were clubbed to death by a fisherman who was jailed for the attack.

“That said, we would like the results of a scientific investigation into this incident made public so that we can rule out foul play.

The spokesperson added that with numbers of grey seals worldwide plummeting at an alarming rate, more needed to be done to protect the species, particularly in Scotland which is home to 40 per cent of the world’s seal population.

He continued: “This incident is a tragic reminder that our globally important seal populations need to be strictly protected as these animals are sadly under threat from toxic pollution; climate change; human over-fishing, entanglement in fishing gears; habitat disturbance and loss; as well as deliberate and cruel persecution from some fishermen that see these wonderful animals as nothing more than competitors for dwindling fish-stocks.

“The UK is home to two hugely important seal populations: there are fewer grey seals in the world than African elephants and they desperately need our protection, not persecution. Our common seals are also in frightening decline.”