Mystery of wounded seals solved

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The body of a young harbour seal washed up at At Abbs has demonstrated the extent of seal fatalities caused by their cousins, the grey seal.

The body of the pup, reckoned to be about two months old, was washed up by the St Abbs Marine Station on Tuesday.

Staff there, checking on its condition, found it to be dead.

Kevin Scott, the main station supervisor, said that the young pup had “obviously only just been weaned”.

The creature exhibited the corkscrew shaped wounds that had baffled observers as to their cause for five years.

Scientists and police launched an inquiry after carcasses of 50 seals were washed ashore along the North Sea coast with spiral cuts on their skin.

Theories abounded on what had caused their deaths, ranging from ships’ propellers to killer sharks from Greenland.

But after years of speculation, experts believe they have found the culprits – rogue grey seals that have developed a taste for the smaller harbour seals.

Grey seals are Britain’s largest landbreeding carnivores, with males measuring up to 10ft and weighing 46st.

Kevin Scott said: “They are big enough to hunt the samller harbour seals. They grab them by the back of the neck, and actually drown them.

“Then, they take them to shallow water and throw them up out of the water with such force that the skin and blubber is stripped away from the body in the corkscrew pattern.

“It’s just like peeling an orange,” he went on, “Their “corkscrew” wounds start at the head and spiral down the body.”

Similar evidence gathered from seal carcasses in German waters suggests this type of behaviour may be more frequent than previously thought.

Scotland’s Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said last week: “The clusters of ‘corkscrew’ seal deaths were unusual and worrying. It is important we understand what caused these unusual deaths and we now have important evidence that natural predatory behaviour is likely to be the main cause, rather than ship propeller injuries as we first thought. This provides some reassurance for the shipping industry.”

David Balston, of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said campaign groups had put pressure on the industry. “While the horrific injuries being inflicted remain a cause for great concern, the evidence that these were predominantly the result of attacks by other seals demonstrates why accurate science should drive the debate rather than raw emotion,” he said.