How does the law protect seals?

Seals are a protected animal under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 (CoSA 1970). The Act does not prohibit the killing of seals, but it does regulate the way in which they are killed.

Prohibited methods of killing seals

It is a criminal offence under CoSA 1970 to use or attempt to use, for the purpose of killing or taking a seal:

  • a poisonous substance;
  • a firearm other than a rifle using ammunition having a muzzle energy of not less than 600 footpounds and a bullet weighing not less than 45 grains.

Close seasons for seals

There is an annual close season for grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) which extends from 1 September to 31 December.

There is also an annual close season for common seals (Phoca vitulina) which runs from 1 June to 31 August.

The Secretary of State can extend that protection to the entire year for either or both the above seal species in any area specified in an order.

Both grey and common seals on the east and south-east coast of England (from Berwick to Newhaven) are currently protected all year from being killed, injured or taken under the Conservation of Seals (England) Order 1999.

It is a criminal offence to wilfully kill, injure or take a seal during the closed season or in contravention of any order made by the Secretary of State or to attempt to do so.

What defences are available?

The following defences are available to a person charged with a criminal offence under CoSA 1970:

  • where a person takes or attempts to take a seal which had been disabled otherwise than by that person’s act and the seal was taken or is to be taken solely for the purpose of tending it and releasing it when no longer disabled;
  • where the killing or injuring of a seal was unavoidable as an incidental result of a lawful action;
  • where the killing or attempted killing of a seal was done to prevent it from causing damage to a fishing net or tackle in the person’s possession or in the possession of a person at whose request the seal was killed or an attempt to kill the seal was carried out, provided the seal was in the vicinity of such net or tackle;
  • where a person kills a seal which had been so seriously disabled otherwise than by that person’s act that there was no reasonable chance of it recovering;
  • where a person has a licence to carry out the act.

Police powers under CoSA 1970

CoSA 1970 gives the police the power to stop a person and search any vehicle or boat which they may be using where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person is committing an offence under the Act. The police also have the power to arrest a person if they fail to give their name and address to the police.

The Act also gives the police the power to seize any seal, seal skin, firearm, ammunition or poisonous substance found and the power to sell or dispose of any seal seized.

Court powers under CoSA 1970

Where a criminal offence is committed under CoSA 1970, the court has the power to fine the person guilty of the offence. The court can also order the forfeiture of any seal or seal skin in respect of which the offence was committed or any seal, seal skin, firearm, ammunition or poisonous substance found in a person’s possession at the time of the offence.

Other Secretary of State powers under CoSA 1970

Licences

CoSA 1970 gives the Secretary of State the power to grant a licence to a person authorising them to commit acts which would otherwise be prohibited by the Act. A licence can be granted for the following purposes:

  • for scientific or educational purposes;
  • for the purposes of any zoological gardens or collection;
  • for the prevention of damage to fisheries;
  • for the reduction of a population surplus of seals for management purposes;
  • for the use of a population surplus of seals as a resource;
  • for the protection of flora or fauna.

Entry upon land

The Act also gives the Secretary of State the power to authorise a person to go onto land for the purpose of obtaining information relating to seals and to kill or take seals for the purpose of preventing damage to fisheries by seals.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.