The seals of East Linga (part 2)

Constable Bob Veighey takes notes as a vet carries out a post-mortem examination of one of the dead seal pups. (photo courtesy of Northern Constabulary)

Constable Bob Veighey takes notes as a vet carries out a post-mortem examination of one of the dead seal pups. (photo courtesy of Northern Constabulary)

On 25th February 2009 the two men again appeared at Lerwick Sheriff Court. One, James Stewart – the man considered to be the instigator – pled guilty to the single charge under the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. The other man pled not guilty and his plea was accepted by the procurator fiscal on behalf of the Crown. Of the man pleading guilty, he was unwilling to offer any explanation to the court as to why he clubbed the seals to death, a bizarre situation and one that no doubt raised questions in the sheriff’s mind. The sheriff, Graeme Napier, deferred sentence for a month, warning Mr Stewart that when he returned to court a sentence of imprisonment would be a possibility.

On 25th March 2009 Stewart returned to court to be sentenced. The sheriff told him: ‘As you are aware you have pled guilty to a very serious offence. It is an unusual offence for the courts to deal with which perhaps, if nothing else does, makes clear the general acceptance by law-abiding members of the community of how unacceptable this behaviour is. I am not here to sentence you on the basis that your actions have caused heightened emotions in certain parts of the community; nor for the fact that your actions will be associated in the public mind with Shetland and more particularly Whalsay. My responsibility is to sentence you in accordance with the law. This is a process that requires an unemotional response to the facts of the case, taking into account the various mitigating factors identified by your agent and drawn out in the social enquiry report. There are of course many mitigating factors, not least of which is that you are of previous good character, have no previous convictions and, according to the references I have seen have contributed to the community in Whalsay’.

‘However I must balance that against the seriousness of the offending and a need to make clear that society in general and the courts will not tolerate the infliction of such unnecessary suffering not just on one but on twenty one seals. I do not understand you to accept, as one of your referees put it, that they were brought up to believe that seals are surplus to requirement. Even if you were, no one can condone causing unnecessary suffering as happened here. Although the social work department has looked at the various alternatives to custody in their report, and I have considered these, in all the circumstances but particularly because of the seriousness and as a discouragement to others who may be tempted to engage in this type of activity, I consider that there is no alternative but a custodial sentence. Parliament in enacting this legislation set the maximum sentence at six months imprisonment. It is difficult to envisage a much more serious case of such making allowance for the possibility that someone could breach this section in a more serious manner I consider that my starting point for sentence should be one of four months. I will then discount that by one-third to result in a sentence of 80 days from today.’

Like many other investigations, this was a case where evidence was drawn from a number of experts and where the provisions of more than one statute were considered to ensure that the public was given the best chance of seeing justice done. The green line of police wildlife crime officers will always be thin but it is now making a significant effect on those who commit the varieties of crime against wildlife that this book has described. This specialist police work must be encouraged, supported and improved. I am reticent to suggest it be better rewarded; that might just be too much to ask!

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