The well-publicised deer cull in Killarney National Park could boost calls for similar action against grey seals which, fishermen claim, are now out of control because of population growth and are damaging livelihoods.
Fishermen, in Dingle, Co Kerry, say seals are following their boats and destroying fish in their nets. Over the years, there have been cases of illegal slaughter of seals, with around 60 being shot or bludgeoned to death near the Blasket Islands, in 2004, for example.
There was a predictable outcry against such “barbarism” and conservationists pointed the finger of suspicion at fishermen for the killings, but nobody was ever prosecuted. Like red deer, seals are protected under EU and Irish wildlife laws.
The Blasket colony is one of the country’s largest and, in days long ago, islanders hunted seals, which may have kept the population down. In his 1937 memoir, The Islandman, Blasket native Tomás Ó Criomhthain tells us islanders once ate oil-rich seal meat (a barrel of which was worth a barrel of pork) burned seal oil for lighting, and sold seal skin.
“It’s odd the way the world changes,” he wistfully wrote. “Nobody would put a bit of seal meat in his mouth today. They melt it down for light and if you made a present of the skin to a gentleman, he’d hardly deign to accept.”
A new study, meanwhile, shows that seals can be choosy about prey and are partial to a diet of weever fish — the chaps which give a nasty sting if you step on them at low water on beaches in summer time.
This venomous fish is often found in shallow, sandy waters along the south-east coast and the latest study was in the Wexford area by a team from the UCC School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.
Seals eat plenty of weever and have probably developed immunity to the toxin they produce. Martha Gosch and the study team also speculate that one way in which the seals can reduce the effect of the venomous spines is by changing the way they eat these fish.
The spines point towards the weever’s posterior, but the seals eat them head-first, thereby lessening the likelihood of any toxin being injected. Further research is needed, but the study supports other examples of the remarkable ability of seals to adapt their behaviour to local conditions.
Grey seals tend to take in whole fish but, according to the UCC team, they avoid harm by consuming weever head-first. Such learned behaviour is consistent with previous studies on seals’ food patterns. The findings, published in the Royal Irish Academy’s journal, Biology and Environment, also indicate grey seals may have developed a process that negates the weever’s toxin.