POLICE in Shetland are investigating the deaths of six common seals shot in the head on the west side of the islands.
The animal welfare charity Scottish SPCA is leading the investigation into the incident which came to light this month when six carcasses washed up on the shoreline at Bridge of Walls.
Three of the seals were carrying full term pups and would have given birth this month had they survived.
Common or harbour seals are a protected species and it is illegal to kill them at any time of year in the northern isles.
Only last year Shetland fisherman Jimmy Stewart was jailed at Lerwick Sheriff Court after he admitted clubbing 21 grey seals to death in November 2008.
This latest incident has caused particular concern because common seal numbers have been plummeting, with the St Andrews-based Sea Mammal Research Unit estimating the northern isles population has dropped by more than 60 per cent in the past 10 years.
Shetland’s senior SSPCA inspector Ron Patterson was alerted to the dead seals by Scottish Natural Heritage who were tipped off by the local wildlife enthusiast who found them.
“At first we discovered five common seals, so I went back the next day with a vet and Shetland’s wildlife crime officer and we found another one,” Mr Patterson said.
“Post mortems were carried out showing three had been shot in the head. The other three were too far gone, their heads were far too decomposed to ascertain what had happened, but three were discovered to be carrying full term pups,” Mr Patterson said.
“There is no doubt in my mind that they have all been shot. We are taking this matter very seriously and are appealing to members of the public to come forward with any relevant information.”
He said that people could contact either the local SSPCA or Lerwick police station and anything they said would be treated in the strictest confidence.
Award winning Shetland wildlife tour operator Jonathan Wills said that seals were worth more to the islands alive than dead because they attracted so much interest from tourists.
“This is very, very bad publicity. We are trying to sell Shetland as a place where we live in harmony with the wildlife, where we have a successful fishing and fish farming industry without harming wildlife,” he said.
Australian tourist Michelle Hinde, who was taking photographs of seals on Dr Wills’ boat Dunter III, said she was shocked by the news of the deaths. “We came here to see a pristine environment and a community living in harmony with its wildlife,” she said.
Jan Bevington, who runs Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, is currently looking after a common seal pup who was found not far from where the corpses were discovered last week.
The pup was born prematurely in early May, another sign of the stress the common seal population is under at the moment.
“Common seals are not doing well. The numbers have fallen and the condition of the pups we have been getting in here for the past decade or so has been worrying. They are not as strong as they used to be and we are having to work harder to keep them alive,” she said.
SNH area manager John Uttley said that common seals were having problems throughout Shetland, Orkney and all the way down the east coast of Scotland.
“We don’t know why, but they are in serious decline so any additional mortality from shooting, killing or disturbance is quite serious,” he said.
Common seals are protected by the Conservation of Seals Act which covers the summer breeding season, but the northern isles are covered by an additional conservation order that protects them all year round.
Next year both common and grey seals will come under the new Marine Act which will protect both species all year round and anyone wishing to shoot them will require a licence to do so.