Canadian seal hunt begins despite international 'propaganda campaign'

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The gruesome and gory Canadian seal hunt started yesterday with a claim from the country's prime minister that celebrity opponents such as Paul McCartney and Bridget Bardot were part of an international "propaganda campaign".

As hunters armed with hooked clubs took to the ice floes of the Gulf of St Lawrence in eastern Canada, Stephen Harper defended the hunt, saying: "Unfortunately, we're to some degree the victim of a bit of an international propaganda campaign. We believe the country is acting responsibly and we'll make sure all rules are enforced."

As always, the hunt has been the focus of widespread international condemnation. Paul and Heather McCartney are among the opponents of the hunt, and in a video message released on Friday night they said they were amazed the Canadian government had ignored the protests.

"We actually pleaded to the Canadian government to stop the seal hunt, but they have refused," said Mrs McCartney, who visited the floes earlier this month with the former Beatle. "We're devastated to learn that 325,000 of these harp seals, almost all of them defenseless babies, will be clubbed and shot to death."

Robbie Marsland, director of International Fund for Animal Welfare UK, who flew over the ice yesterday, said: "Just days ago I was on the ice watching healthy young seal pups, which had not yet learnt to swim. These pups had survived despite Canada's warmest winter on record and a lack of ice causing many newborn pups to die. "But sadly, I have just witnessed the start of this year's hunt. Seals as young as 12 days old are now being clubbed, or shot from boats as sealers race to fill their quota.

"At Chevrey in Quebec, at the top of the Gulf of St Lawrence, we came across around 10,000 seals. I witnessed men getting off boats and running across the ice, clubbing and shooting the seals, hooking them and dragging them back to the boats with their hakapiks.

"These seals were not all dead. When the hunters we were watching got back in their boats, we saw one seal pup which had been left behind on the ice. It was clearly wounded, and left bleeding to death.

"After first witnessing one of nature's most amazing spectacles, then seeing at first hand this cruel and unnecessary slaughter which leaves trails of blood on the ice, I urge the Canadian government to stop this hunt. Canada is better than this. It needs to end the hunt now."

Canadian seal hunters are usually fishermen who see the spring hunt as a way of providing vital income in an economically depressed region. They say the harp seal population stands at a healthy six million, and dismiss claims that hunting seals is any more cruel than sending animals to an abattoir for slaughter.

In the past few years the Canadian government has permitted the hunting of around one million seals. This year's quota of 325,000 animals is divided between the Gulf of St Lawrence and the hunt in Newfoundland, which takes place next month.

The re-emergence of the hunt has been fuelled largely by increased demand for pelts from eastern Europe and Russia. The US banned Canadian seal products in 1972, while the EU has banned the white pelts previously taken from unweaned seal pups, though not skins from slightly older seals.