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Mystery surrounds seal deaths

PUBLISHED: 13:00 12 August 2010 | UPDATED: 09:27 16 September 2010

Adam Lazzari

A wide scale investigation involving police and several other organisations is being carried out to discover why more than 35 severely scarred seal carcases have been appearing on the north Norfolk coast.

A wide scale investigation involving police and several other organisations is being carried out to discover why more than 35 severely scarred seal carcases have been appearing on the north Norfolk coast.

The mysterious deaths have been occurring in Wells, Blakeney and Morston since December and have been continuing over the last few weeks.

The animals, a mixture of both grey and common seals have all suffered laceration injuries which are believed to have proved fatal.

All have a single smooth edged cut that starts at the head and spirals around the body which is strongly believed to have been caused by a blade of some sort.

Post-mortem examinations have been carried out on two seals but the results are not yet known.

Seal biologist Dr Dave Thompson, who works for the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews, Scotland and is assisting the investigation, said: “There have been a few unexplained seal deaths with identical injuries off the coast of Fife over the last couple of years but nowhere near the number in Norfolk. I've been in this career for more than 20 years and I've never seen such a large number of seals suffering this same injury over a relatively short period of time and we do not yet know what the cause of these injuries is.”

The investigation involves Wells Police, the National Trust, Sea Mammal Research Unit, The Marine Management Organisation, RSPCA, Natural England, National Wildlife Crime Unit, Eastern Sea Fisheries, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Police inspector Mike Brown said: “The seals have suffered awful injuries which we believe are the probable cause of death and there is no indication that these were caused by disease or any type of predator.

“We have been working closely with seal boat operators and local fishermen but would like to hear from anyone else who may have information regarding these occurrences.”

Several theories have been circulating locally including that recently spotted large bull seals may be responsible or that the seals have been accidentally caught up in boat propellers when looking for food.

Beverley Cosse, from the Seal and Bird Rescue Trust in Ridlington said that seals are now not afraid to get very close to boats and the increased number of seal deaths may simply coincide with the expanding seal population.

But Mr Thompson said: “The injuries do not appear to be consistent with propeller strikes. They would appear to be caused by some sort of rotating single blade within a channel or cowling or by the seals rotating past some form of static blade. And they were almost certainly killed shortly before they were found and within a few kilometres of where they were washed ashore.”

He added: “There is no way that these injuries could have been caused by another seal or a predator. And there is no chance that any individual has been cutting them with a knife. Seals are intelligent predators and they would have anyone who tried that.”

Mr Thompson said it is unlikely that the seals were killed deliberately as this would be very difficult to do and at present the most plausible explanation is that the seals were killed by an azimuth thruster or cowled propeller which are both common on modern types of ship.

A spokesperson for the National Trust said: “Our role has been photographing and recording all of the seal deaths and it has been both very distressing and concerning for our staff. Seals are part of what people love about this area and nobody knows what on earth is causing these deaths.”

Anyone who sees a dead seal should report it to the RSPCA.

People are not advised to handle a dead seal, but instead take a photograph and e mail it to smruseal@st-and.ac.uk

Anyone with information about the incidents should contact inspector Brown on 0845 456 4567.

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