Positive steps for animals are always welcomed, and never more so than in these challenging times. So we are delighted to be able to celebrate today’s Scottish government announcement of two positive measures for animals - a ban on fish farmers shooting seals in Scottish waters and increased sentencing powers for animal cruelty cases.
Maximum sentencing for animal cruelty cases has increased from one year to five years, following extensive campaigning by IFAW and other groups. The Scottish government had previously pledged support for a ‘Finn’s Law’ for Scotland, to recognise in law the importance of service animals such as dogs and horses and better protect them from attack. It is hoped that increased sentencing powers for animal cruelty cases will provide a deterrent for such attacks on service animals, as well as giving broader protection to all animals.
Finn’s Law was named after police dog Finn who was stabbed in the head and chest while protecting his handler, PC Dave Wardell during an incident in Hertfordshire, England in 2016. As service animals were classified as ‘property’ at the time, Finn’s attacker could only be charged with criminal damage. German shepherd Finn was initially not expected to survive his injuries but went on to make a remarkable recovery.
A resulting campaign for better recognition of service animals and increased measures to protect them led to Finn’s Law being passed in England and Wales last year and Scotland pledging to introduce similar legislation. A Bill to increase sentencing powers for animal cruelty cases in England and Wales is still progressing through Parliament.
IFAW and others have campaigned for many years to bring about an end to the cruel practice of licensed ‘seal shooters’ at Scottish fish farms being able to kill seals which are believed to be damaging their salmon stocks, nets and other equipment. Necropsies of seals shot in this way have revealed some pretty horrifying truths – that some seals do not die instantly, but slowly and painfully; that 35% of these necropsied seals were pregnant grey seals; and that some seals were nursing mothers, shot when their pups still depended on them.
Quite apart from the unacceptable suffering for the animals involved, IFAW has always maintained that shooting seals is fairly ineffectual in preventing seals from causing damage to salmon farms, as there has been little evidence that shooting reduces seal interactions with the farms, or that the seals shot were the ones causing the damage.
Sadly though, this wasn’t enough to prevent more than 1,700 grey and harbour seals being killed in this way under licence since 2011. Back in 2010, the Scottish Government passed the Marine (Scotland) Act, which made the killing of seals illegal, but a provision in the Act allowed seals to be shot under licence in order to protect salmon fish farms and local fishing interests.
Today’s ban has been brought about partly by the risk of Scottish farmed salmon no longer being eligible for export to the very lucrative US market from the start of 2022 while seals were still being shot on fish farms. This is because new regulations will come into force in the US under the Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibit the import of fish or fish products to its shores that are the result of an ‘intentional killing or serious injury of a marine mammal’. This is a market Scotland does not want to lose, with reported exports worth £193m in 2017.
However, with the number of seals shot under licence falling consistently in recent years (from an average of 200 seals per year down to under 50), the ban also reflects both public opposition to the shooting of seals on welfare grounds and greater efforts by the industry to find alternative methods to prevent them from causing damage - such as properly weighted and tensioned nets.
We are pleased to see that this change in the law should provide much-needed protection for seals, which also face a range of other threats from entanglement in marine debris to the effects of plastic pollution.