SSPCA demands ban on 'barbaric' guga hunt

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IT HAS been a rite of passage for men in the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis for centuries.

• Guga hunters return from a trip to the island of Sula Sgeir; a cull of the bird, below, that the SSPCA now hopes to stop Picture: Alamy

Now the Scottish SPCA has called for politicians to ban guga hunting - the annual cull of thousands of gannet chicks - branding the practice "inhumane and barbaric".

Up to 2,000 guga are killed every year on Sula Sgeir island, 40km off the Butt of Lewis, by a group of ten hunters who bludgeon the birds to death with heavy implements after hauling them from cliff tops using nooses attached to long poles.

The killing of other wild seabirds is outlawed under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, but the guga hunters are granted a special licence from the Scottish Government to continue their tradition.

"A competent person may kill one or two birds outright with a single blow, but in our opinion most will take more than one blow to be killed," said Mike Flynn, chief superintendent for the SSPCA, who has written to the government to demand that the hunters' licence is revoked.

"If someone did this to a pigeon outside their back garden, they would probably face prosecution. This practice has gone beyond its sell-by date."

The birds are brought back to Lewis and eaten by the residents of Ness. Surplus guga are sold on the island and to other communities in the area.

"If you go back hundreds of years, it did form part of the staple diet on the island, but that is no longer the case," said Mr Flynn. "From our point of view, it is not acceptable to keep anything going that is not 100 per cent humane."

But Donald S Murray, an author from Ness who wrote a book entitled The Guga Hunters, insists the practice is humane.

"Banning guga hunting would just be flying in the face of all reason," he said. "It has been tradition for hundreds of years. I fail to see what the difference is between catching fish and catching seabirds, as long as it is done in a sustainable safe way which does not damage the birds' environment."

This year's hunt, which lasts for two weeks, is currently under way. The hunters leave the Isle of Lewis for the duration and sleep in bothies until the catch is delivered back to the quayside on Lewis.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "We are satisfied that there is no conservation risk to the local gannet population posed by this traditional hunt. We are also satisfied that, provided it is done effectively and competently, the method used to dispatch the birds is not inhumane."

An RSPB spokesman added: "In conservation terms, gannets are doing OK, and are actually increasing nationally.

"As such, the RSPB presently has a neutral stance on this activity, but if the population is seen to be affected we would expect the terms of the licence to be reviewed."

Acquired taste:

WITH descriptions varying from tasting like a "salt mackerel-flavoured chicken" to "a cross between rotten leather and fishy beef", even the most guga-loving Ness resident acknowledges that the seabird delicacy is not to everyone's taste.

The birds - gannet chicks - are salted on the remote island of Sula Sgeir by the hunters and brought back to Lewis in barrels. The guga, or gannet chick, is usually served with boiled potatoes and a glass of milk. It is argued that the oil extracted from the bird is a good source of vitamin D.

TV chef Gordon Ramsay was attacked by animal rights activists five years ago when he travelled to Lewis to cook a guga for his F-Word programme.

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