Gannet-eating world championship set for Hebrides

Gannets pictured on the Bass Rock in East Lothian. Picture: Jane Barlow
Gannets pictured on the Bass Rock in East Lothian. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT MIGHT not be to everyone’s taste, but the first world championship for eating pickled baby gannets takes place in the Outer Hebrides tonight.

Known as guga, the gannet chicks are hunted on Sùla Sgeir, a rocky islet 40 miles north of the Isle of Lewis.

Men from the Ness district travel to the remote island for two weeks every summer to cull 2,000 guga – it is the only place in Britain it is allowed. The birds are then preserved and eaten throughout the year.

Ness FC Social Club has organised the first World Guga Eating Championships to celebrate the delicacy.

Competitors will have to eat half a guga and some potatoes in the shortest amount of time possible. Whoever cleans their plate first will be crowned champion.

One of the organisers, Donald Macsween, said the prize was “the honour and the glory of being world champion”.

He went on: “It’s the first time we are going to hold anything like this. We wanted to do something different this year. We thought this would be a nice bit of fun.

“The guga is an important part of our heritage and history, and very much a part of who we are in Ness. We are very proud of the guga.”

With just 20 places available, Mr Macsween believes the event will be oversubscribed.

He said: “There’s a few of the guga hunters taking part – one of them in particular would give people a run for their money.”

Speaking about his own chances of being crowned world champion, he said: “I’ve got a big mouth – I’ve a decent chance of winning.”

For at least 400 years, men from Ness have travelled to the remote uninhabited rock. The birds are slain with a stick – the hunters say death is quick and humane – decapitated, singed in fire, pickled in salt and sold as a delicacy for more than £20 a pair. Many find their way in vacuum packs to relatives around the world. The birds are usually so much in demand they have to be rationed.

Fans describe the taste as being something between duck and salted mackerel.

The guga has been rated as a delicacy by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who has praised the distinctive taste and cooked and eaten a gannet on TV.

But not everyone is a fan. Two years ago, the Scottish SPCA renewed its call for the annual hunt to be banned, saying: “Brutalising animals in this way under the guise of tradition has no place in modern society.”

The SSPCA previously wrote to the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) – ministers transferred responsibility for licensing the hunt to SNH – urging a ban.

It said it was concerned many of the birds would not be killed by a single blow.

The hunting of seabirds was outlawed in the UK in 1954, but the community continues to be granted the only exemption under UK and European Union law allowing them to hold the annual hunt.

The Scottish Government has said it is satisfied the methods used to kill the birds are not inhumane if it is done competently. The RSPB has also not raised objections.

However, the SSPCA remains adamant that guga hunting should not be granted special dispensation.