ANIMAL rights activists have vowed to lobby the Scottish Executive and Europe to end the traditional baby gannet slaughter in the Outer Hebrides.
They want ministers at Holyrood to scrap the special exemption from European law which allows islanders to kill baby gannets, even though such hunts are normally banned. They claim that the event is little more than cruelty in the guise of culture and that there is no reason for islanders to go out and kill the birds for food. And a Labour Euro-MP has said that the right to hunt should be reviewed.
Islanders have hit back, saying the animal rights groups are little more than "serial complainers" and ministers have said they have no plans to review the right to catch the birds.
The annual "guga hunt" left from Port of Ness in the north of Lewis last Friday to sail for the tiny island of Sulaisgeir, 40 miles to the north. The word guga is the Gaelic term for gannet.
A team of 10 men will spend a fortnight catching and killing 2,000 young gannets gathered from the island's precipitous cliffs. The tradition is at least 500 years old, and the birds were once seen as an essential source of protein in a limited island diet.
The Edinburgh-based Advocates for Animals (AFA) is threatening legal action and urging the public to write to the Scottish Executive demanding it revokes the licence.
Ross Minett, of the AFA, said: "We are convinced that this brutal hunt will be ended in the near future - it belongs back in the Dark Ages and has no place in a modern 21st-century Scotland. We are all for maintaining traditions but not when they cause animals to needlessly suffer like this."
John Murdo MacFarlane, a veteran guga hunter said of the renewed criticism: "We don't give a damn. We're not breaking the law. The animal rights groups complain about everything."
According to RSPB Scotland, the UK gannet is not endangered.
Ministers have said they do not plan to end the Hebridean tradition and added that it takes place under strict rules and subject to expert advice from conservationists.
A Scottish Executive spokesman said: "The hunting and eating of gannets is a centuries old tradition in the Western Isles and we have no plans to end it.
"Gannets can only be taken with a specific licence and we take advice from Scottish Natural Heritage on whether the hunt is ecologically sustainable.
"The current licence sets a limit of 2,000 gannets and specifies that the birds must be humanly killed and that unnecessary disturbance or damage to the colony should be avoided."
When the birds are caught, they are throttled, gutted and cleaned. They are singed over an open peat fire and are then salted and packed into barrels to be taken to Lewis. The birds are a traditional Christmas or New Year dinner.
Aficionados describe the taste as being something between duck and salted mackerel, while those less keen regard it as unpalatably tough and very salty.
They have been rated as a delicacy by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who has praised the distinctive taste and cooked and eaten a gannet on TV. Despite the disapproval of the animal rights lobby, islanders flock to snap up as many of the birds as they can at about £20 a pair. The birds are usually so much in demand that they have to be rationed.
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