Police hunt killers who shot and beat porpoises

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The alarm was first raised by a member of the public on the sands at Barmston, east Yorkshire, three weeks ago. Photographs handed to the police showed a harbour porpoise which had been washed up dead with a small hole above its eye and a gaping exit wound at the back of its head.

The alarm was first raised by a member of the public on the sands at Barmston, east Yorkshire, three weeks ago. Photographs handed to the police showed a harbour porpoise which had been washed up dead with a small hole above its eye and a gaping exit wound at the back of its head.

A suspicion that the mammal had been deliberately shot strengthened to near certainty this week with news of a second porpoise, found in a similar condition 150 miles north at Newbiggin, Northumberland.

In the intervening weeks, the corpses of around 40 harbour porpoises - a species on the World Conservation Union's "vulnerable" list - have washed up on North Sea beaches from Northumberland to Lincolnshire. About 200 of the animals, which are up to 6ft long, are believed to live along the stretch of coast.

At least two of the animals may have been shot with a high-powered rifle and the head injuries on a number of the others suggest that they were beaten to death by an individual who took a heavy implement to the tops of their heads. A £5,000 reward for information leading to the killers being convicted was offered yesterday by a marine environment charity which runs The Deep, the £45m Lottery-funded aquarium in Hull.

Although the cause of the creatures' deaths will not be confirmed until post-mortem examinations are completed at the Natural History Museum in London, police believe that the porpoises may have fallen victim to the practice of pair-trawling, which is also affecting the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) population in places as diverse as Cornwall and Canada.

The practice - illegal in British waters but still employed by some foreign trawlers beyond the 12-mile limit around the UK - involves stringing a large net between trawlers to improve a catch of fish. Several conservation groups report that this has greatly increased strandings of dolphins and porpoises.

The individuals who have killed the North Sea mammals may well be foreign fishermen who accidentally caught the live porpoises in their nets and took measures to get rid of them. Humberside Police have spoken to British fishermen and ruled them out of their inquiries.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, all cetaceans (porpoises, dolphins and whales) are protected species and anyone convicted of ill-treating them faces a six-month prison sentence or a £5,000 fine.

In theory, there should be a considerable amount of evidence at Humberside Police's disposal. Porpoises - along with whales, dolphins and sturgeon - have been designated as Fishes Royal since the reign of Edward II in the 14th century. This makes them the responsibility of the Crown and means that the disposal of any dead porpoise found on the shore should be dealt with by the government-appointed Receiver of Wreck.

But in reality, the stench created by the animals' decomposing bodies is so dreadful that fishermen often take matters into their own hands.

Sergeant Chris Hine, the Humberside Police wildlife crime officer leading the inquiry, has only the photographs to work from in his investigation into the first shot porpoise. But he indicated that he had received "some information" and hoped the reward would deliver the "crucial" clue he needed to apprehend the perpetrators, who were probably working from a boat.

In a typical year, no more than 10 dolphin or porpoises corpses will wash up on the coastline from the Scottish border to Humber - all of which are reported to HM Coastguard as a matter of course. But the levels of death and injury befalling porpoises in the past few months have prompted all kinds of local theorising - including one far-fetched notion that a shark might be patrolling the waters east of Newcastle.

Dr Horace Dobbs, director of International Dolphin Watch and a respected author of children's books dealing with marine issues, said the attacks could endanger the region's population of harbour porpoises - deep-diving creatures capable of reaching depths in excess of 200 metres - since the creatures die in their teens and breed once a year at most.

"I'm horrified and distressed to think anybody should want to commit such a mindless act," he said. "It sounds like there is a nutter out there. Why would they want to kill them? They must be totally depraved."

He considers it unlikely that the attackers were trying to stop the mammals eating fish.

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