Magazine article History Today

Grey Seals

Magazine article History Today

Grey Seals

Article excerpt


THE GREY SEAL Halichoerus grypus has become an obvious British example of the problems associated with a nature conservation success in the modern era. We often dwell on nature conservation failures, but conservation successes are something that we rarely address, and may well prove important as an environmental issue in the twenty-first century.

In 1914 the Grey Seal (Protection) Act established a close season (October 1st to December 15th) for this mammal, after a small group of concerned and responsible sportsmen put pressure on a handful of MPs worried that the British grey seal population stood as low as 500 animals. Charles Lyell MP wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland in July 1913 that, although grey seals did take fish, they were `quite harmless and interesting beasts' both needing and worthy of preservation. Scientists and historians now suspect that this population was more likely to be over 1,000 animals, but further parliamentary protection came in 1932 extending the annual close season from September 1st to December 31st. Over the course of the twentieth century the UK grey seal population, most of which lives in north and north-west Scotland, rose to around 123,000.

The seal problem is now a political, economic, social, cultural and environmental question. Whilst the grey seal has become an environmental icon to many, fishermen still demand from government a return to the seal culls Of the 1960s and 1970s. Historical research can shed light on the roots of this modern conservation conflict, and can be of practical value to organisations involved with the wise management of current UK grey seal populations (National Trust, English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage) or undertaking scientific research on seal populations (Sea Mammal Research Unit, Department of the Environment). We can trace the evolution of our complex reactions to grey seals, and open a window on the changing nature of our relationship to the natural world.

Before the late nineteenth century there was no concept of species protection in Britain (save for some game animals), and no sense of delight in seals. Our most traditional response to grey seals has been to use them as a resource, obtaining oil from their blubber for medicinal purposes, lamps and for carding wool, and using sealskins for waistcoats, sporrans, horse harnesses and fashionable motoring jackets. The flesh was used locally for food in the Outer Hebrides, being dried and stored. The 1914 Act supposedly put an end to this slaughter during the breeding season at least, but the Fishery Board for Scotland knew of sealers active on remote skerries and islets into the 1920s, and as late as 1948 in one instance. Policing the Act was almost impossible. There were even moves to restart sealing as a commercial venture, proposed by London furriers in 1928, and Norwegians eager to raid the Shetland colonies in 1936. The Fishery Board considered it outrageous that British seals could be killed by foreign hands. In 1958 Norwegians landed on North Rona National Nature Reserve and killed grey seals, prompting the Foreign Office to demand an apology. In February 1937, Mitchell Steel of Bristol, fresh from sealing adventures in the South Atlantic, boasted to the Scottish Office that for 100,000 [pounds sterling] he could rid the coasts of Britain of all seals, and sell the flesh and skins for profit.

Under protection during the breeding season, the British grey seal population grew to about 9,000 by the mid-1930s, was around 34,000 individuals by the mid1960s, and since the 1970s has been increasing at 7 per cent per annum. Outside of the close season, rogue grey seals were shot at nets for a reward of 1 [pounds sterling] per tail during the inter-war years, and strychnine was widely used against seals, moles and foxes. In September 1941 the Poison Rules of 1935 were relaxed to allow licensed strychnine use, with fishermen being allowed to obtain 4oz to combat seals. …

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