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Fishermen accused of young seal slaughter
By David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent

The Independent

6th November 2004

Dozens of young seals on a remote island off Ireland's south-west coast have been shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death in an incident that has been condemned as cruel and barbaric.

The bodies of about 60 of the animals were discovered by divers earlier this week, strewn on a breeding beach on one of the Blasket Islands off County Kerry on Ireland's south-west coast.

Sean Eviston of the Irish Seal Sanctuary, who travelled to the island to view the scene, said most of the animals killed were about three weeks old, adding: "They ripped some of these seals open from the nape of the neck."

He said some had been shot and some had been beaten with rocks while, in other cases, nails appeared to have been driven into their skulls. Some of the animals had also been disembowelled. He blamed fishermen for the slaughter.

Most of the seals killed were "whitecoats", signifying they were only a few weeks old when killed. They are born in the Blaskets from mid-September onwards, their mothers staying with them for about three weeks to suckle them. The pups are known as whitecoats in the first few weeks of life because of the long white covering they were born with.

Ireland's Environment Minister, Dick Roche, described the attack as cruel and barbaric, saying: "I was shocked and disgusted to hear reports of the sheer brutality of the slaughter of the seals off the Blasket Islands.

"I have sent an official of my department to the islands to investigate this disgraceful act and I am expecting a full report.

"The cruel and barbaric slaughter of these seals has a dehumanising effect on society. The sight of seals being bludgeoned to death is repugnant. I appeal to anyone who has information about the perpetrators of these killings to contact the Gardai in County Kerry."

The incident is the latest and largest-scale example of a practice which is known to be a regular occurrence on parts of Ireland's western coast. The general but unproven assumption is that such attacks are carried out by fishermen who regard seals as a menace to their livelihood. As far as is known, no one has been convicted in relation to any such incident. Adult grey seals can eat up to five per cent of their body weight in one day, consuming scores of fish such as mackerel and herring.

Begenish, where the slaughter took place, is one of the beautiful but bleak Blasket Islands which are now uninhabited. The islands are Ireland's largest sanctuary for grey seals, with about one-third of Ireland's grey seal population returning each year to breeding grounds.

Although the grey seal is a protected species in Ireland, close observers believe their numbers are in decline. That may be partly down to a naturally high mortality rate but also because they are regularly being killed by humans.

Experts say that, every year, seal corpses are discovered with evidence of human attack, such as gunshot wounds. In others cases, they have discovered seals which have been beheaded or disembowelled.

This is done, apparently, because their killers hope that the mutilated bodies will sink to the bottom of the sea and thus leave no evidence of human involvement in their deaths.

Because many of the bodies are never found, the scale of the illegal culling is not known, though it is certain that seals are killed each year. The largest known attack came in 1992, when at least one hundred animals are known to have died in a mass slaughter.

Pauline Beades, a volunteer seal conservationist, said yesterday of the Begenish attack: "We are talking about the entire pupping season being wiped out. It's absolutely heartbreaking, incredibly distressing."