The number of seals shot around Scotland’s coastline is decreasing, but hundreds were still killed last year, often by fish farms protecting their stocks. Nick Drainey meets a marksman tasked with dispatching the graceful creatures to find out how he copes with this gruesome work, and whether it is really necessary
It is a grey day on the west coast of Scotland; the rain is getting heavier and the wind stronger. As with all farmers, Dave is concerned about the weather. “Too much fresh water,” he grumbles as he looks up. But the produce he is worried about is not in fields, it is the thousands of salmon a hundred yards away, in cages bobbing gently in the middle of a sea loch.
As with other farms, making sure the feed levels are right and predators are deterred is key. The main predator, one not faced by arable or livestock farms, is the seal. A range of measures are taken to deter grey and common seals, but every year licensed marksmen like Dave shoot those determined to attack their salmon.
What makes him do this, and is there no way round it? Dave is not his real name, the firm he works for are fearful that if he was identified he himself could be attacked by campaigners vehemently opposed to the idea of shooting wildlife. For that reason I don’t learn his real name until I arrive at the fish farm.
It is immediately apparent, however, that Dave is no bloodthirsty, gun-toting hunter wanting to “bag some prey”. He describes himself as an animal lover who enjoys watching seals, but says that sometimes, as in large populations of wild deer, aggressive animals need to be controlled.
He says: “I like all wildlife; I have grown up with it all my life – rearing it, shooting it or burying it. Killing seals doesn’t affect me badly because my life has been in the gamekeeping trade. I understand why it has to be done, I don’t get any excitement out of doing it; I just have to do it. It is like deer – I don’t get any enjoyment out of slaughtering deer, but they have to be managed, like seals.”
In order for farmed Scottish salmon to receive accreditations such as the RSPCA’s Freedom Food or the Label Rouge in France – salmon is the first non-French product to receive that accolade – a gun can only be used as a last resort when seals are causing a problem.
Before Dave picks up his high-powered rifle, a string of deterrents have to be in place. These include ensuring the strengthened circular nets – which form the cage to hold the salmon – are weighted down 16 metres below the surface, making them hard to penetrate.
In addition, a screen is placed around the bottom, so any dead fish cannot be seen by seals – these fish, along with waste is removed every two days using a giant vacuum cleaner. Divers are also deployed every fortnight to check for any holes in the nets. Sonar devices – known as seal scarers – are also deployed. The sound can also affect dolphins, porpoises and whales, so their use is regulated and recorded. If those measures don’t work, says Dave, they have to kill seals: “If all else fails you unfortunately have to dispose of them, shoot them.”
In practice, killing a seal is much like deerstalking, with the overriding aim to get a clean kill. Dave says: “It is a patience game; you aim for one clean safe shot so there is the minimum of stress to the animal. It is always a head shot – it causes instant death.”
Individual seals, he says, can be identified as easily as humans can – making it possible to kill the “occasional rogue seal” which is trying to attack the salmon.
“We don’t kill seals willy nilly. On some sites you shoot from the cages, or on a boat – you do it from the best place possible. As a rule you try to get high, and no more than 120 metres away. The motto is not to go out and maim an animal.”
A seal will often sink to the bottom of the loch straight away when killed, but if it can be retrieved it is then sent for a post-mortem examination at the Scottish Agricultural College. Every kill is reported to Marine Scotland.
While Dave says he is not proud of killing seals, he is not ashamed either: “I don’t go out of my way to make it public. It is an aspect of my job that I do. I am not proud of it but it is one of the things that have to get done – and there is the welfare of the fish to think of. I’m not doing anything wrong; I am doing it by the law, by the book.”
Last year, the Scottish Government brought in a rigorous licensing scheme to protect seals, after campaigners warned that more than 3,000 were being killed each year. For the first nine months of 2011, 362 seals were shot – less than a third of the permitted maximum.
Stress suffered by salmon when a seal attacks is as much of a problem as actual biting, says Dave. Although a seal will often find it hard to get through the strong nets, they can persistently attack them. Dave says: “When a seal is trying to attack or get into the fish they can cause stress, and that affects feeding, their behaviour – it is like a human getting hounded by somebody – it can make them ill.”
Very occasionally, in bad weather, a wave can sweep a seal into a cage – which means they usually have to be shot. Dave says: “The only seal I have shot in the last 12 months is one that had got into the cage – he was hanging around and there was a big swell and he just went in with a wave. It doesn’t happen often. I had no choice but to shoot the seal – there was no way to get it out.”
For those who say killing any seal is wrong, Dave points to the jobs created by the fish farming companies. “The biggest employment on the west coast of Scotland is fish farming. One in every 20 people you speak to in the street works in a fish farm or has a family member working in a fish farm.”
If a problem seal is not shot, Dave says, hundreds of fish could be lost, and as salmon fetch £4,000 a tonne it would have an impact on the operating costs of a fish farm. Dave says the current situation is a far cry from 30 or 40 years ago, when fish farming in Scotland was in its infancy. He says that with measures such as better cages the problem of seals is decreasing and that more deterrents will emerge in the coming years, reducing further the need to shoot them. But there will always be persistent animals that they need to kill. He also points out that salmon farms are not the only places where seals are shot, saying that country estates can apply for licences to shoot seals if they are attacking salmon at the mouths of their rivers.
“The nets, the cages … the system we have now is far more effective than it used to be. But I’m afraid to say there will always be the occasion where a seal will have to be shot.”