Growing public opposition, spearheaded by environmental organisation Greenpeace, led to a dramatic reduction in a proposed cull of Scotland’s grey seals 40 years ago today.
On October 17th, 1978, it was announced that the number of adult grey seals to be culled in the Orkneys and Western Isles was being cut to 2,000 – less than half the 4,300 originally planned.
The seals, whose numbers had been growing steadily, were seen as a threat to the livelihoods of Scottish fishermen. Periodic culls had been carried out for decades, but increased public awareness of the practice led to widespread opposition. While those in the fishing industry saw the seals as undermining its long-term viability, the public saw them as harmless and lovable creatures being cruelly slaughtered for commercial gain.
In 1978, the government finally bowed to public pressure, with Scottish Minister Brian Millan announcing his decision to revise the number of seals to be killed. He believed that scientific evidence over the threat to fish stocks was correct, but he also acknowledged there was widespread public concern over the cull. His compromise was to limit it to 2,000 seals.
A group of professional Norwegian seal hunters, who had travelled by boat to assist in the cull, would be sent home, said Mr Millan. Instead the scaled-down cull would be carried out by experienced local hunters in the Scottish islands.
While preferring to see the cull abandoned altogether, Greenpeace welcomed news that it would be far smaller than originally planned. Its environmental activists had been shadowing the Norwegian hunters’ boat for two weeks in their own converted trawler, Rainbow Warrior, to prevent the cull from starting.
Greenpeace director Peter Wilkinson told reporters: "We’ve always said there may be a case for culling the seals, but the evidence has simply not been made available. This is magnificent news and an enormous victory for public opinion.”
More than 14,000 letters had been sent to the Prime Minister in Downing Street as part of a concerted campaign of opposition to the cull. Unflinching TV coverage of seal culls in other parts of the world had helped galvanise public opinion against the practice.
However, the scientific community was unhappy at the government for bowing to public pressure. The Natural Environment Research Council – the body which suggested the 4,300 figure for the 1978 cull – said if no action was taken the number of grey seals feeding in Scottish waters would double to 140,000 over the next decade.
Since the 1960s the number of grey seals in British waters had risen by an average of 6% per year, with 40% of the world’s population found there. It was estimated that the seal population cost the Scottish fishing industry around £12 million per year through the amount of fish they consumed. An adult grey seal can eat around 5kg of fish per day, but they do not feed every day and they fast during the breeding season
Culling continued in future years, but with numbers strictly limited and the work carried out by local hunters. Seal numbers did continue to rise, but not as steeply as feared. By 1999 there were around 123,000 grey seals in British waters, more than 90% of them in northern waters. Apart from officially sanctioned culls, UK seals are protected under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. In areas with large seal colonies, such as around the Farne Islands, there is a thriving tourist trade in seal spotting boat trips.