Town's seal colony may be shot to save salmon

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A colony of seals that has taken up residence at the mouth of one of Scotland's main angling rivers will be shot unless it moves before the arrival of the annual spring salmon.

For almost three months, estate workers responsible for protecting stocks on the river Thurso in the far north of the Highlands have been trying to scare away the creatures. The seals, which are basking on a small island opposite the tourist office in Thurso, have become an attraction for visitors and a cause célèbre for local animal rights supporters.

Eddie McCarthy, the river superintendent for Thurso Fisheries, said: "Although I am perfectly within my legal rights to shoot these seals, I don't want to, and am willing to try anything rather than harm them." The fisheries is chaired by Viscount Thurso, the local landowner, who as John Thurso is the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

Mr McCarthy said: "The spring salmon will be arriving in five or six weeks and if they are taken by the seals that is a complete generation of salmon wiped out.

"We will also have this year's smolts [young salmon] attempting to leave the river in mid-April and the seals will just sit with their mouths open and feast upon them. With so many seals on such a narrow stretch of river there will be no room for any of the salmon to get past."

Mr McCarthy's nightmare began last October when a late run of salmon up the river was followed by half a dozen seals. Within days the number had grown to about 27 as they set up residence on an island just down the river from the main bridge crossing in Thurso.

"I tried throwing stones at them, but people who saw what I was doing started threatening me," said Mr McCarthy.

"I phoned the local offices of Scottish Natural Heritage to tell them that seals were beginning to colonise the mouth of the river and asked for their advice but they weren't much help. I have 38 years' experience in this business, the last 21 as river superintendent here, and I have never known this sort of thing to happen before."

Desperate to force the seals to leave, Mr McCarthy built a fence of sheep netting around their island. But with the river in spate, the seals quickly found a way around the obstacle.

He then tried covering the ground in sharp stones, and on Tuesday put scarecrows in fluorescent jackets on the island to scare them – all to no avail. "If the seals aren't gone by the end of March I will be forced to shoot every last one of them," he said. "I don't want to do it – they are perfectly healthy – but I have the right, as they are not an endangered species.

"In fact, I am more endangered than they are. I have been offered to have my throat cut, it has been wished upon me and my family that we all die of cancer very soon, and somebody has even threatened to torch my wife's car just because I want to get rid of the seals."

Mr McCarthy said the river had "enjoyed a worldwide reputation as a salmon river" but it would cease to do so if the seals stayed. The fishing generated a lot of income for the local economy, he said. "We regularly have visitors from America, Canada, France and Spain."

Paul Simonite, who lives in the town, said he understood Mr McCarthy's desire to protect his salmon stocks from plunder, but saving the river for a single use was not viable.

"Mr McCarthy is of the opinion that the seals are of little or no financial value to the area, but he is mistaken," he said. "I have had a number of visitors from the south this winter and high on their list of 'must-sees' is the Thurso seals. Wildlife tourism is fast becoming a world-leading income generator and should not be dismissed out of hand."

A spokeswoman for Scottish Natural Heritage said one of its officers would contact Mr McCarthy to discuss moving the seals without having to shoot them. "If he should decide to go through with a cull we hope he will at least talk to us first so that we might be able to help."