Britain told to sever links with 'cruel' seal cull must be ended'

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Pressure is building on the British Government to ban the import of fur from seals clubbed to death during the bloody annual hunt on Canada's east coast.

As the Canadian Government announced that hundreds of thousands of seals would be slaughtered on the ice this year, MPs and animal welfare groups demanded ministers introduce a unilateral ban ending Britain's role in the "abhorrent" trade in their pelts.

During the annual cull around 2,000 hunters roam the wind-swept ice floes slaughtering the seals, either by shooting them or hacking them to death with traditional hakapicks.

According to videos taken by animal welfare groups, a high proportion of seals are left wounded on the ice -and skinned alive.

Animal welfare groups fear the cull will deplete seal populations struggling to cope with reduced ice coverage caused by global warming. Their campaign received fresh publicity earlier this month when the former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney and his wife Heather lay down with a baby seal and told reporters that the ice would soon turn red with blood.

Canada staunchly defends the annual hunt, which it says will not harm seal numbers and is strictly monitored by vets. Yesterday, Canada announced that up to 325,000 seals would be killed in the hunt, which begins later this month. A new report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said the seal cull was bigger than ever and called for an end to Britain's contribution to it.

The US already bans the import of all seal products, while European countries including the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium are thought to be considering a ban. In Britain, the Government says the seal cull does not break any international agreements on conservation, but the Foreign Office minister responsible, Ian Pearson, said in a Commons debate last month that he would look at introducing a ban.

There is believed to be support among ministers for a ban. The IFAW report quotes the environment minister, Elliot Morley, as saying - after a visit to the hunting grounds in 1994 - "It is abhorrent that mass seal hunts continue when there is no need for their products."

Traders imported seal products worth £300,000 into Britain in 2004 and the figure is expected to be as high this year. Seal fur coats are not thought to be on sale in British shops because of opposition from consumers but an estimated 10,000 seal skins are traded by UK brokers. Britain is responsible for 30 per cent of the European trade in seal fur, second only to Denmark. The pelts, made into coats, pass through Britain on the way to buyers in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Mark Glover, campaign director for Respect for Animals, called for an end to the hunt's "extreme unregulated animal cruelty."

"The video evidence, and what I have personally witnessed out there, is absolutely intolerable," he said. "The hunters run from seal to seal hitting as many of them as possible, leaving them in excruciating pain while they rush to the next animal - all for a product nobody needs.

"It is important for Britain to ban it because until we do we are supporting that hunt, and until we do so the people of this country will have blood on their hands as much as the hunters do."

The Canadian High Commission in London is aware that the damage done by pictures of the mammals being hacked to death. A spokeswoman said: "The annual seal hunt is tightly-regulated, humane, economically viable and based on sound conservation principles. At 5.8 million harp seals, the herd is three times the size it was in the 1970s."

Yesterday's IFAW report says that a team of veterinarians found that 79 per cent of sealers did not check that the seal was dead before skinning it.

The Labour MP Ian Cawsey, quoted in the report, said: "None of the photographs or footage you ever seen of the seal cull prepares you for the real thing. The fearful sounds of the seals, the savagery of the clubbing, the ice turning red as the blood seeps away and the steaming, skinned and abandoned corpses. It is difficult to understand the mentality behind this cull. It needs to be ended."

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