Police hunt killers who shot and beat porpoises

A A A

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?