Britain's secret profits from the seal cull

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The Independent Online

British retailers insist they do not stock their products, fur traders claim they are a mere sideline and a Welsh fashion designer caused a national outcry a few years ago by using them on the catwalk. But the seals whose slaughter has turned the Canadian ice blood-red this week are earning British traders healthy revenues, according to figures seen by The Independent.

British retailers insist they do not stock their products, fur traders claim they are a mere sideline and a Welsh fashion designer caused a national outcry a few years ago by using them on the catwalk. But the seals whose slaughter has turned the Canadian ice blood-red this week are earning British traders healthy revenues, according to figures seen by The Independent.

EU import/export data for 2003 shows that nearly 6,000 seal pelts were imported to Britain, many of them from Canada. Another UK import was seal oil, a new by-product which is being marketed as a superior alternative to fish oil health supplements. British consumers may be put off by this week's pictures of sealers clubbing animals over the head but the nation's fur brokers and manufacturers are evidently not.

The figures suggest that hundreds of the pelts are being handled by British brokers, who import them from Canada via Norwegian tanneries and mark them up for export to Russia. The country has a Baltic Sea cull of its own and does not share western Europe's distaste for the cull. Saudi Arabia and South Korea are the next biggest markets for the British seal fur brokers.

The figures also show Britain is exporting thousands fewer pelts than it is importing - an indication that many are being passed on to British clothing manufacturers and tailored into garments for export. The mark-up potential is considerable. A three-quarter length coat lined with seal fur will sell for up to €2,500 (£1,660) in Russia and other eastern European countries, and as much as €4,500 (£3,000) in Denmark. The fur has also become far more popular in Greece, Italy and Asia.

"Year after year we see this kind of trade surplus in Britain," said a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "It [seems] a number of [British] firms are doing the manufacturing and sending finished products off." The British Fur Trade Association this week admitted some of its members do trade in fur but would not disclose which. Neither would it reveal what revenues the seal fur business bring in. But its spokeswoman, Andrea Martin, did indicate the value of seal pelts has risen to around 60 Canadian dollars (£25) apiece.

Eastern Europe is not the only place providing a burgeoning market for British seal exporters. After years of being taboo, seal fur has made something of a comeback in the past few years. A Louis Vuitton collection in Paris showed coats, tunics and pinafore dresses made from sealskin. Donatella Versace also featured sealskin in her first collection.

Seal fur can also be used in less obtrusive ways. The fur's flatter hair is used as a decorative feature on the top of shoes and a penchant for fur trim in the teenage fashion market may have seen it used on vests and jackets in the past 12 months, although the source of the fur may not be obvious once dyed.

But it is seal oil which is of particular concern to animal welfare activists. The Vegan Society claims the oil's origin may be disguised in the UK by use of the term "marine oil" on packaging. "We know these terms are widely used, and cover things like seal, whale and dolphin oils," said spokeswoman Catriona Toms.

The trade figures show oil worth €31,000 (£20,600) was imported to Britain last year and oil-related goods worth €161,000 (£107,000) were exported. The product is naturally high in Omega-3 oil, which can be used in skin creams and lip balms. Sealers have been helped by the Candian government subsidies to find major markets for it.

Seal furs have other, more unusual uses in the UK. Traditional Scottish sporrans are made from fur and highland outfitters like Nicoll Brothers, Kinloch Anderson and The Scottish Store still sell the genuine article for around £180. The fur is also used as bait for the fishing industry, by virtue of its remarkably good buoyancy. A leading store, Barlows, of Macclesfield, Cheshire, confirmed seal fur is still used and sold in the UK. Other uses promoted by sealers include salami, pepperoni and seal sausage, marketed as high in iron and low in fat.

In Canada, sealers say their brief seal harvest - which protects the youngest "whitecoat" seal pups of up to 12 days' old - brings a much-needed boost to family incomes. But the British Government shares IFAW's concerns about the cull, which will have claimed the lives of 350,000 seals by May's close of hunting season. Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien is known to be pressing for a relaxation of World Trade Organisation rules which forbid EU countries restricting imports on the basis of animal welfare concerns.

"Britain does not accept the need for a seal cull and the Canadians are well aware of that," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said yesterday.

VUITTON AND VERSACE PUT SKIN IN NEW COLLECTIONS

By Ian Herbert

A Louis Vuitton collection has used sealskin in coats, tunics and pinafore dresses. Donatella Versace made it a part of her first show. It is also used decoratively on shoes and as a trim on coats, vests and jackets.

Traditional Scottish sporrans, right, are also made from seal fur and retail at as much as £180.

Seal oil is naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is said to combat arthritis. The Canadian Sealers' Association has also worked on a lotion for eczema and psoriasis. It be also used in skin creams and lip balms and sealers energy and food products Seal penises are shipped to Asia as aphrodisiacs and can sell for up to £200 each. The sealers have also developed seal protein drink for sportspeople.

Meats include salami, pepperoni and seal sausage. The buoyancy of seal fur also makes it a popular bait for the fishing industry.

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