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Leading animal charity says stop to chick hunting

The Scottish SPCA wants the baby gannet culling on the Isle of Lewis banned.

Baby gannets: traditionally killed on the Isle of Lewis

Scotland’s oldest animal welfare charity is calling for an end to a centuries-old Hebridean island tradition of hunting baby gannets.

The annual ‘guga hunt’, underway at the moment, has long caused friction between islanders against animal-welfare campaigners.

Because it involves the slaughter of thousands of baby sea birds, critics have likened the practice to the clubbing to death of baby seals by Canadian hunters.

The Scottish SPCA is calling for an end to the special derogation under European Union law that allows the annual cull to continue on cultural grounds, and for on the Scottish government to cease giving a licence to the hunters each year.

The tradition requires men from the village of Ness, on the island of Lewis, to sail 60 miles to the rocky outcrop of Sula Sgeir, where for two weeks they scale 300ft cliffs and use long poles to catch about 2,000 juvenile birds before beating their heads with a stick.

They are then preserved in an empty beer barrel filled with pickling brine and sold as a pungent delicacy to friends and neighbours who welcome the hunters home as heroes.

Local demand for the "delicacy", said to taste similar to salty mackerel mixed with venison, remains high. Gordon Ramsay once demonstrated on his television show The F-Word how to catch and cook guga, and has suggested he may include the dish in his restaurants.

Now the Scottish SPCA has branded the ancient practice as barbaric and inhumane.

In a letter written to the Scottish government demanding the licence that allows the cull to continue each year is revoked on animal welfare grounds, the charity claims that the methods used causes "unnecessary suffering".

The charity's chief superintendent Mike Flynn said: "The suffering starts before any attempt to kill takes place because the chicks are hauled from cliff tops using nooses attached to long poles, which in itself will terrify the birds.

"They are then struck on the head with a heavy implement until dead. A competent person may kill one or two birds outright with a single blow, but in our opinion most will take more than one blow to be killed.

"This has to be considered in the context of this particular species of bird as gannets have exceptionally strong necks and heavy skulls, which enable them to dive into the water for prey from very high heights and at great speeds."

He added: "We would expect other animal welfare and conservation organisations to be supportive of a move to bring to an end a barbaric and inhumane practice which causes unnecessary suffering to thousands of young gannets every year.

"Tradition is simply not an acceptable reason for maintaining such a practice.

"We accept that maybe 150 to 200 years ago the guga formed part of the staple diet of the islanders, but that is certainly no longer the case today, yet they are still using the same methods that were used all those years ago.

"It may be argued that the cull is sustainable or it simply doesn't matter because the gannet is not an endangered species, but these arguments are irrelevant when suffering is being caused.

"The killing of any animal must be carried out in the most humane manner possible and this practice has no place in modern society."

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds also regards the annual cull as sustainable, pointing to the presence of breeding gannets on the outcrop for many centuries. It adds that the British gannet is far from endangered, its population growing fivefold over the past 50 years.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "This is a tradition going back centuries. The Scottish government does not have any welfare concerns and is satisfied that there is no threat to the local gannet population."

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