Alongside courses in veterinary nursing and bookkeeping, students at one College in Thurso can also learn the theory and practice needed to shoot seals. This is, of course, shocking, and quite rightly it has received media attention  this week after the issue was highlighted by the Seal Protection Action Group, a Brighton based campaign group focused on seal protection around the world.
The fact that this was even deemed news will be surprising to those who are part of the wildlife management industry. Alex Hogg, who is Chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, responded by saying :
“What all species managers aim to do, whether managing seal populations or squirrels, is to carry out what is necessary in the most humane way possible … colleges offering courses in how to do these things properly, therefore, are providing an important public service and should be supported”
There is logic to this. If animals are being killed legally then it stands to reason that best practice should be followed and suffering minimised. This is especially the case when the reasons behind a cull goes beyond private economic interest and are supported by an evidence-base that demonstrates it has wider environmental and/or environmental benefit. Deer culling, which is routine across Scotland, is a good example of this. Deer have no natural predators in Scotland and, as a result, their population can be unsustainably high, damaging the environment and causing serious welfare issues when deer die in the winter due to starvation. Killing is carried out by professional marksmen and there is comprehensive legislation governing it. The results are far from perfect, but it is the best of a bad situation.
Deer culling is an exception, rather than the rule, however. Mountain hares, corvids, foxes, and small mammals like stoats and weasels are heavily persecuted, largely to protect private economic interests. Whilst there is some legislation governing how this is done, the practices are far from ‘humane’ and compare poorly to other countries. Snaring, for example, is widely used in fox control here but banned in the vast majority of EU countries. A report by academics from the University of Cambridge advised that this practice has “such extreme effects on the animal’s welfare that, regardless of the potential benefits, their use is never justified” . Similarly, a study of seal shooting in Canada concluded that “shooting seals in open water can never be humane” . The practice has become so controversial that the US Government could block imports of Scottish salmon as a result of it .
The root problem is that a cull culture dominates thinking within the natural resource management industries in Scotland. When conflicts arise with fishery, farming or hunting interests, the default is to kill the wild animal. Until this culture changes, wildlife will continue to suffer. Training of those who carry out wildlife management can limit the suffering, which is why it needs to continue for as long as this activity is legal. It cannot, however, remove the suffering when it comes to practices like snaring and seal killing. That’s why academic institutions need to go beyond simply training their students to keep to the law or even best practice. They should be encouraging them to identify humane, non-lethal alternatives, teaching the evidence base behind it, and exploring the ethics of the activity too.
To end the suffering caused by culls and wildlife persecution, not to mention the impact it has on biodiversity, we need to challenge the cull culture. Its ethics are those of an age where humans and their economic interests trump all else, and they are increasingly out of touch with public opinion, as demonstrated by polling that consistently shows overwhelming support for progress on wild animal protection, in urban and rural areas . It’s this divide that explains how a course in legal seal killing is perceived as an unremarkable but essential qualification within the industry, whilst at the same time its very existence can be the topic of a shocking newspaper headline.