For Whitehall, protecting Nessie wasn't such a monstrous idea

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Key points

• Civil servants debated how to protect the Loch Ness Monster under law

• There were concerns that Nessie, if real, would be at risk from hunters

• The Whitehall document was released under Freedom of Information laws

Key quote

"the legislative framework to protect the monster is available, provided she (or he) is identified by scientists whose reputation will carry weight with the British Museum". - Scottish Development Department letter

Story in full NO-ONE has ever proved that she does - or does not - exist, but with the eye for bureaucratic detail that is the hallmark of the British civil service, we now know that Sir Humphrey and his colleagues once considered how to give legislative protection to Loch Ness's most famous resident.

Documents released under Freedom of Information laws have revealed that, during the last Tory government, officials struggled to establish whether Nessie, if she were ever found, would be safe from poachers or hunters.

The Whitehall exchanges - conducted in formal mandarin prose but which show that the writers had their tongues firmly in their cheeks - were prompted by an inquiry from Sweden about Nessie's lesser-known cousin, the Storsj monster, said to inhabit the lake of that name in the north of the country.

In August 1985, the British Embassy in Stockholm wrote to the permanent under-secretary at the then Scottish Office. Polite to a fault, the writer started: "I am sorry to bother you with an inquiry which will, no doubt, be greeted at first glance with gales of laughter."

The letter explained that Swedish civil servants were looking for details about the legal safeguards which existed for Nessie, as they wanted to protect the Storsj monster, reputed to look like a snake with a dog's head and fins on its back.

It said: "The county administrative board into whose area the Storsj lake falls ... has approached us for help in dealing with pressure for protection of the Storsj monster, whose status is somewhat similar to that of our own in Loch Ness. What, they wonder, do we do? Is 'Nessie' protected in any way? The inquiry is a serious one and we should like to give them at least a half-serious reply."

The Foreign Office, the Scottish Office and other government departments swung into action. A series of memos flew back and forth across Whitehall.

AJB Barty, of the Scottish Office - the formality is somehow increased by the initials and lack of first names - wrote portentously: "The protection of this putative denizen of the deep deserves serious consideration."

One JF Buckle, an official at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, was not convinced that the Scottish monster was protected under law, writing: "Unfortunately Nessie is not a salmon and would not appear to qualify as a freshwater fish under the Salmon and Fisheries Protection (Scotland) Act 1951."

Stephen Dowell, another official, considered the matter dryly. He wrote: "There is, of course, another part to the question and that is measures to protect man from Nessie, however, past history indicates that Nessie's tastes do not extend to homo sapiens."

In the end, after taking advice from the Nature Conservancy Council, officials from the Scottish Development Department wrote back to embassy staff, telling them that if Nessie was discovered she, or he, would be protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act which made it an offence for anyone to snare, shoot or blow up Nessie - or any other protected species for that matter.

The advice was that "the legislative framework to protect the monster is available, provided she (or he) is identified by scientists whose reputation will carry weight with the British Museum".

An official reply was sent to the embassy in Stockholm, signed by one FH Orr. It stated: "The Secretary of State for Scotland has powers, on representation made to him by the Nature Conservancy Council, to make an order adding any wild creature to the schedule if in his opinion that creature is in danger of extinction ..."

The letter went on: "We should certainly welcome teams of Swedish scientists, amateur and professional, bent on establishing Nessie's identity, and I can assure them that there is ample accommodation in the Highlands and plentiful supplies of the national beverage which will help them to see her in the dark."

In January 1986, someone from the embassy, identified only as M Bradfield, wrote back to the Scottish Office, informing officials that legislation had been passed in Sweden to "prohibit the destruction, injury or capture of live animals of the Storsj monster species, extending to the taking or damage to any eggs, roe or nest of the monster".

Adrian Shine, the naturalist and director of the Loch Ness Project, described the documents as "fascinating" but said they showed that the civil servants, while not wishing to offend the Swedes, were conducting the business "tongue in cheek".

Mr Shine, who led a mission to Sweden to hunt for their monster, said that legislation had been introduced there but it had now been rescinded because there was no proof that their beast existed.

He said that he did not belive Loch Ness was "Jurassic Park", but it was a "special place" and if Nessie were ever found, the existing legislation would probably be enough to protect her.

Mr Shine said that the civil service involvement with Nessie in the 1980s was not the first time she had been brought to the attention of legislators. In 1933, the then local MP, Sir Murdoch MacDonald, who later claimed to have seen Nessie, had written to the Secretary of State for Scotland, saying he was considering introducing legislation to protect the monster, though he did not do so in the end.