Activists condemn 'barbaric' hunt of young gannets by Scottish islanders

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The Independent Online

For centuries the men of Lewis in the Western Isles have scaled the cliffs of Sula Sgeir island to harvest young gannets for the gourmet's table. But this year, along with high seas and howling winds, they face a new challenge - the animal protection groups that have been battling to save the hedgehogs of North Uist.

For centuries the men of Lewis in the Western Isles have scaled the cliffs of Sula Sgeir island to harvest young gannets for the gourmet's table. But this year, along with high seas and howling winds, they face a new challenge - the animal protection groups that have been battling to save the hedgehogs of North Uist.

About 10 men will set sail from Ness on Lewis this month to reach the rocky island, one kilometre long and 200 metres wide, 40 miles off the Butt of Lewis. They will spend a fortnight on the uninhabited outcrop gathering the birds that once provided the winter staple for the Gaelic-speaking communities there. Once the catch is complete the men return as heroes to Ness, where they are met at the quayside by their friends and neighbours who, despite the stubbly appearance of the gutted young gannets, or gugas, queue for a share of the harvest for about £20 a brace.

Now advocates for Animals, the group that was instrumental in the North Uist hedgehog campaign, has called upon the Scottish Executive to stop what they describe as a "barbaric" tradition.

"We believe this is a brutal practice," said Ross Minett, the group's campaigns director. "We don't believe it can be justified on the grounds of tradition. It isn't right in the 21st century in a civilised country that young birds should be killed in this brutal way." The gannets are killed by strangling, clubbing or having their necks broken.

"We want to see the practice ended and are calling on the Scottish Executive to overturn the exemption which allows this unnecessary slaughter to continue," Mr Minett said.

Since 1954, the Protection of Birds Act has made it illegal to harm the gannet population. But the men of Ness have been granted special permission to continue with their harvest, with the agreement of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The local people say they are wedded to the tradition. The birds are usually served boiled with potatoes and a glass of milk. "It's no more cruel than the way chickens are reared and killed," said Murdo Macfarlane, an islander who has been part of the annual hunt for nearly 30 years. "When the people on the mainland stop killing five million turkeys a year for Christmas, we'll stop catching guga."

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