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Should Nelson the seal have been shot in the first place?

When an attempt to capture a seal results in it drowning, the usual suspects hit their keyboards — never letting the facts get in the way, says Alasdair Mitchell

rifle shooting

The story of the seal that installed itself at a small coarse fishery in Essex is a parable of our times.

Nobody knows how the seal got to the five-acre pond but, once it was there, it found itself in seal heaven. It is thought to have gorged itself on up to £4,500 worth of carp, catfish and bream in little more than two months. The distraught fishery manager, who leases the site from the local council, had to watch helplessly while the seal literally ate his livelihood.

The council eventually agreed to sanction an effort to capture the tubby sea mammal. Two attempts were made by an organisation called British Divers Marine Life Rescue. But the seal – by now nicknamed Nelson because it had an injured eye — outwitted their nets. Eventually, a vet was called in to shoot the animal with a tranquilliser dart. Sadly, after being darted, Nelson dived and drowned.


Shooting any wild animal with a tranquilliser dart is an uncertain business. Even if your shot is accurate, you are depending on the right dose of chemical to put the animal into a near-coma, without being able to weigh it first. The risks must be magnified when the animal is in water.

For all the good intentions, the netting attempts and the darting must have caused Nelson huge stress.

Almost inevitably, the fishery manager received online death threats after rumours of the failed rescue got out. Without knowing the full story, the usual suspects hit their keyboards, making all sorts of unfounded allegations. The unfortunate manager’s plight worsened over a weekend because the rescue organisation felt it couldn’t release a factual statement until it had actually found a carcass.

Now, you or I might think that the most humane course would have been to shoot the seal dead in the first place. But the reaction to the rescue attempts gives an inkling of how that news would have been received.

The same issues beset specific problem animal control, or culling more generally. Look at what happened in Germany, where a male wolf identified as GW950m killed a pony belonging to the family of EU supremo Ursula von der Leyen. After more incidents, a permit was issued to shoot GW950m, but this is being contested by legal challenges from animal rights activists. While lawyers argue, GW950m has teamed up with a female and the pair are now heading a pack of younger wolves which are learning to raid farms and pony paddocks. (Read more on Ursula von der Leyen’s pony here. )


In the UK, we have activists demanding that grey squirrels and deer should be fed birth control pills rather than being shot. I fail to see how dosing wild animals with toxic chemicals that induce early-stage abortion is preferable to killing them cleanly with a firearm. Apart from anything else, what are the implications of using such chemicals for scavengers, the environment and meat wastage?