Byline: PAUL RIDDELL
IT IS nature at its most raw and merciless.
Abandoned by her mother during a fierce storm, a grey seal pup lies marooned at the head of a lonely beach. Without nurturing from its mother it will perish on the rocks.
Hundreds of grey seal pups around Scotland's coastline die in this fashion every year, victims of the harsh climate.
Yet, with the pupping season under way, on one island there are clear signs that man, not nature, may be the prime killer of seals this winter.
Last weekend Ross Flett, who runs the Seal Rescue Centre, based on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay, drove up the long steep track from his house to discover a one-week-old pup, bludgeoned to death with a club, hanging from the sanctuary's sign. He has little doubt who was responsible.
South Ronaldsay has a distressing history of illegal seal-culling.
Three years ago there was an international outcry after 25 pups were slaughtered in a remote cove.
Each defenceless, harmless creature had been shot in the head at point-blank range with .22 calibre bullets. Despite detailed forensic analysis of all 200 legally held .22 rifles on the island, and one illicit weapon discovered during a police search, the killers, almost certainly members of the 1,000-strong community, were never found.
But in the 'court' of local opinion fishermen were tried and convicted.
Until 1983 they had been permitted to carry out an annual cull of grey seal pups in order to keep their numbers down.
DURING the decade after 1962 around 750 pups were killed annually, with the number rising to 1,000 a year between 1973 and 1982. After vociferous protests by conservationists against a planned cull in 1983, the Government outlawed systematic killing.
The fishermen believed, and still believe, that the ravenous mammals pluck bait from lobster and crab creels and consume fish by the shoal.
Since November 1995, however, fishermen and seal-lovers on the island, which skirts the south eastern edge of Scapa Flow, have maintained an uneasy truce until now.
A post mortem on the seal pup found hanging from the sanctuary's sign revealed that its skull was fractured in three places.
For Mr Flett, a veteran campaigner on behalf of seals, and the island's policeman, PC Dave Daw-son, who is also Orkney's police wildlife liaison officer, it was a sickening act. Suspicion immediately fell on two local fishermen, but with no evidence to justify arrest Mr Flett has been left anxiously wondering when the next act of savagery will be committed.
Despite the introduction of the Wild Mammals Protection Act of 1996, which could result in seal killers facing a [pounds sterling]5,000 fine or a six-month jail sentence, instead of the more lenient [pounds sterling]2,500 fine recommended by the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, it seems that the fishermen are at the end of their tether.
Orkney is home to a third of Scotland's 30,000 grey seals.
So has a new battle begun in the centuries-old war between man and seal on an island where a hard living is made from beef cattle, fish farming and commercial fishing and where sentimentality is a scarce emotion?
'To me it signals the start of something. It has been quiet here for three years,' said Mr Flett.
'Now I fear an escalation of the problem. Most local fishermen think there are too many seals but appear to accept you can't go around killing them. …