Wild Winter – an extract
- Friday 6 December 2019
John Burns writes about what he loves, and that's roaming Scotland's wild places and spreading the word that we all need to play a part in preserving the future of our landscape and its inhabitants. In his next literary venture, Wild Winter, he aims to raise awareness of the plight of the Highlands' most iconic species, including the red deer, the otter, the sea eagle and the wild cat in their battle for survival in the harsh contritions of Highland winter.
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Peering through my binoculars I begin to see other boulders moving on the beach, then more and more come into focus. Beside them lay the white bulbous shapes of the pups. Below me are around twenty seals laying on the beach with their young pups beside them. This is what I have walked all this way to see. For just a few weeks in the November seals have their pup on these rugged shores. There is a small sandy beach here, no bigger than a football pitch. Protected from the sea by bands of rock are small pools where the seals can gain their first experience of the water in safety. The grey dappled skin of the adult seals perfectly matches the boulders they are sitting beside. At first glance they are almost invisible. The pups are lighter, almost white in their juvenile fur.
Before this my only sighting of seals had been heads bobbing in the water, watching me with curiosity as I walked along remote beaches or sometimes seeing them basking in the sun on distant sand banks surrounded by the sea. They are bigger than I had imagined, surrounded by great rolls of blubber to protect them from the cold sea water. On land they struggle to move, and can only make progress in ungainly short waddles as they try to move their bulk across the sand. Not much happens in the seal colony. The pups lie beside their mothers, contented and safe. Occasionally an adult waves a flipper and the young come close to their mothers to suckle. I am watching a scene that cannot have changed since the ice retreated 10,000 years ago. One of the few truly wild sights that still exist on these crowded islands.
Sad to say even in these waters the seals are not safe from the hand of man. Every year hundreds are shot by fish farmers protecting their stock from marauding seals. For this reason alone American companies are banning the importation of Scottish farmed salmon. The salmon farming industry that has sprung up around the shores of Scotland provides valuable jobs for small isolated communities but is far from the natural and sustainable industry one might imagine. The salmon farming industry has grown dramatically over the last few decades and there are now over 200 fish farms producing more than 150,000 tonnes of salmon a year in a billion pound industry.
Salmon do not naturally live in netted pens and fish farmers are constantly in a battle trying to keep at bay epidemics of parasitic lice which literally will eat the salmon alive. The amount of farmed salmon is now dropping due to infestations and disease. Pesticides, waste food and faeces pollute the sea lochs that support the salmon farms causing huge environmental damage. I never eat farmed salmon and I am sure many people would avoid it if they knew the damage the process of farming salmon causes and the undoubted suffering of the fish themselves let alone the casualties it causes to the seal population.