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Animal rights campaigners claim that a "secret slaughter" of seals was being carried out by fish farmers around the Scottish coast.

The Seal Protection Action Group said as many as 5,000 of the mammals were shot every year.

However, the industry claims the figure is nearer 500, and insists that seals have to be controlled to protect commercial stocks.

It is currently legal to shoot seals outside their breeding season when they are threatening fish farms.

Common seal numbers have dropped in recent years and campaigners believe that the unofficial cull is one of the factors behind the decline.

Andy Ottaway, of the seal protection group, said: "The seal shooting takes place in very remote locations in sea lochs around Scotland and there are no witnesses, and under the law the industry doesn't even need to release the figures of the numbers they have killed.

"We believe there is a mass slaughter of seals in Scotland, up to 5,000 each year."

Mark Carter, of the Hebridean Trust, said the general decline in seal numbers was particularly noticeable around fish farms.

He told the BBC's Countryfile programme: "Scientifically we don't know the real reason behind the total decline, but what we do know is that when they are situated near a fish farm then there is a decline and shooting is probably one of the main reasons.

"We have got people who have actually witnessed the shooting on fish farms, and we have had several seals washed up with bullet holes in their heads."

However, Scott Landsburgh, of the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation, said a single seal attack could kill several thousand farmed salmon.

He added: "The seals are very aggressive, they attack the nets and can bite through them, and they can also actually use their flippers to steal salmon out of the cages.

"It's not just a few, it is thousands of salmon. Indiscriminate attacks by seals can cause trauma throughout the cages and we can lose 2,000 or 3,000 salmon at a time, not only by attacking them but also just be being in the vicinity.

"We all like seals, we all want to protect the seals, but our paramount responsibility is the welfare of the salmon.

"Let me put this in perspective, we had 30,000 seal attacks on Scottish salmon farms last year. Our industry has reported to us that 489 seals were shot by the salmon industry."

Callan Duck, of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University, said it was legitimate in some circumstances to shoot seals, but not if they happened to be passing a farm or if they were at adjacent "haul out" sites.

If a seal was damaging a salmon cage and releasing salmon into the open water, then "probably the only way to solve that problem is to remove the seal", he added.