Ban call over Britain's shocking trade in sealskins
THEIR huge liquid eyes warm even the coldest heart, but the endearing appearance of young harp seals is not enough to spare hundreds of thousands of them from being clubbed and shot to death along Canada's icy north-east coast every year.
And despite growing international revulsion at the violent cull, tonnes of seal skins are imported into Britain every year, some for exclusive fashions but many used to make that most Scottish of garments, the sporran - and the trade is growing.
Figures obtained by The Scotsman show there has been a dramatic increase in the number of skins being brought into the country.
Fearing a public backlash, government ministers are now moving towards a complete ban on seal fur imports to Britain, something campaigners have been seeking for more than 20 years.
Official trade statistics obtained by The Scotsman show that imports of seal skins to the UK rose by 13 per cent from 2004 to 2005. In 2004, the imported skins weighed a total of 3.6 tonnes. Last year, the figure was 4.1 tonnes.
The majority of the imported skins are the product of Canada's annual hunt, when more than 300,000 seals are killed, primarily for their fur.
Canada's yearly hunt is at the centre of a huge international lobbying campaign by animal welfare groups, who have recently persuaded countries including Germany and Italy to ban the import of all seal fur and skin. The trade has been banned for several years in the United States, Canada's neighbour.
A growing number of MPs are now calling for a total ban on imports, and a European Union ban is also drawing nearer after a recent vote by MEPs.
In the face of such mounting pressure, the British government is now giving serious consideration to a total UK ban, a senior minister has revealed.
Britain already bans the import of furs from seal pups that still have their first white coats, but animal campaigners point out that since the animals shed those coats after about 12 days, UK rules still permit the import of furs from very young seals.
Ian McCartney, the trade minister, said that the rules could well be tightened to include all seals, no matter what their age. "We are actively looking into the possibility of imposing a ban on the import of listed products of all harp and hooded seals," he said.
The use made of imported sealskins in Britain is unclear in many cases, and it is likely that a quantity is sold on to third countries. But some is known to be kept in the UK for use in clothing.
A number of exclusive fashion houses have made use of skin in recent years - Gucci last year advertised an "ebony sealskin fur coat" for sale, but it is unclear if any were ever sold after the garment drew criticism.
A less glamorous but more commonplace use for sealskin is in making sporrans. At least two sporran-makers working in Scotland routinely make seal fur sporrans, and dozens of shops sell the items, which typically cost around 100 each.
Sporran-makers contacted by The Scotsman yesterday were unwilling to discuss the use of seal fur, saying they had been the target of protests from animal rights groups.
But the owner of one kilt shop that sells sealskin sporrans yesterday confirmed that all the skin involved was imported, and conceded that public opinion is moving against the trade. "It's a traditional Scottish thing, it goes back hundreds of years, but I can understand there's a big movement against it," said the owner, who asked not to be identified.
"We're doing less and less in sealskin. There's no rule that says your sporran has to be made from sealskin - it can be any fur you can get hold of, or leather."
Ross Minnett, of Advocates for Animals, an Edinburgh-based campaign group, said using seal skins in sporrans encourages unnecessary suffering.
"Presumably some of these seal skins will have come from Canada, where hundreds of thousands of seals are slaughtered each year, often being killed in the most appalling manner," he said.
"There is no reason why sporrans should me made using real animal skins these days. There are so many alternatives and synthetic furs available that there really is no excuse."
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, the biggest campaign group pushing for an import ban, also condemned the trade.
"Around a third of a million seals are killed in the Canadian commercial seal hunt every year, with 97 per cent of them under three months of age. The seals are killed primarily so their fur can be used to provide non-essential luxury items for the fashion industry," said Ellie Dickson, an IFAW marine campaigner.
"Many people are shocked to discover that it is still legal to import some seal products from this cruel hunt into the UK. IFAW is urging the UK government to ban the import of harp and hooded seal products as we believe this will send an important message to Canada that the UK wants no further part in this cruelty."
Mr McCartney is understood to have held several meetings with IFAW campaigners in recent weeks. "They are being very sympathetically listened to," said one government source.
Ministers are understood to be keen to act before an EU-wide ban is proposed, something that became more likely when the European Parliament voted for a complete ban in September.
The MEPs' resolution is now being considered by the European Commission, which has the power to issue a directive outlawing seal imports.
Caroline Lucas, the British Green MEP who led the European Parliament campaign for a ban, said the continued import was intolerable.
"Banning the import of all seal fur is the only guaranteed way of saving thousands of animals' lives and showing the EU takes animal welfare and protection issues seriously," said Dr Lucas.
Underlining the international pressure for an import ban, the 46-member Council of Europe, the oldest political organisation in Europe and separate from the EU, called on all of its member-states to ban imports.
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