In 1977 the Times journalist Dan van der Vat, was sent to Orkney to cover a contentious seal cull.
These Scottish islands
Orkney quite possibly got its name from the Old Norse 'Orkneyjar', or "seal islands". The name is quite apt because Orkney is an internationally significant breeding ground for grey and harbour seals. In fact seal remains have been found among the islands’ 5,000-year-old neolithic sites.
Today seals are protected in Orkney, but this wasn't always the case. In the 1960s and 1970s controversial seal culls were conducted because of a perceived threat to the fishing industry. Thousands of grey and harbour seals died and this put Orkney front and centre of an international debate.
Not any more. UK government scientists used to recommend culling based on the
theory that the fewer seals there are, the fewer fish they eat, and less of the
potential profit to the fishing industry is lost to seals (Table IV). In the 1960s it
was recommended that seal stocks should be ‘substantially reduced and
thereafter maintained at a level which will not interfere unduly with fisheries’.
Culling of both grey and harbour seal pups was carried out in the 1960s and
1970s with the object of protecting salmon fisheries (Table XI) as well as selling
skins. In the late 1970s, UK government scientists considered it ‘of paramount
importance’ to fisheries to reduce the UK grey seal population and maintain it at
its mid-1960s level. A total of 1,800 females and 131,750 pups were to be killed
over a 5-year period 1977–82. The effects of these planned culls were to be
monitored and procedures adjusted every year to maintain the population at its
desired level (Table IV).
1978: The Rainbow Warrior sailed to the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, forcing the UK government to abandon a massive cull of grey seals.
It was at the time when Greenpeace UKwas founded.
1976: Greenpeace launched an expedition to prevent the massacre of hundreds of seal pups in Newfoundland. ‘Active membership’ of the organisation also reached 8,000 this year, as the seeds of environmental activism spread rapidly around the world.
1977: Greenpeace UK was born, with four members and £800, in a borrowed office in Whitehall.
‘We knew that some of the culling was for handbags to sell to tourists,’ he says, ‘so we went out to the islands and starting spraying the pups with pink dye.’ The protesters achieved their goals. The last major cull for fishing was called off in 1978 and a European ban on seal skin ended the market.
In 1977 a storm of protest by the freshly formed Greenpeace and others forced the cancellation
Today, the Scottish government still allots licences to shoot seals that cause trouble for industrial fishing and they remain controversial. ‘However their numbers are not high enough to be responsible for the magnitude of the declines,’ says Arso. ‘Shooting is no longer considered a primary cause.’