The Daily Telegraph

The Faroe Island dolphin slaughter is ‘heritage’ that belongs in the past

- Judith Woods

There’s a saying I learnt when I visited the Faroe Islands: “The knifeless man is a lifeless man.” It bespeaks an elemental culture, an existence eked out on the edge, where few crops grow and food must be caught, killed and cut up. I visited this archipelag­o of 18 islands in June with two friends and was in awe of its rugged green beauty, the magical realism of its midnight sky and its glittering inky seas. I fell a little in love with this remote scattering of rocks and its stoical, serious people, whose lives are inextricab­ly bound up with the North Atlantic currents. I urged others to make the journey and experience this remarkable, resilient place so in tune with nature.

But now the seas around Eysturoy churn red with the blood of 1,428 dolphins slaughtere­d on the beach and the world is looking on in horror. Myself included. Boats herded the pod of white-sided dolphins into a bay where they thrashed around in the shallows as they were killed with knives. Hundreds of people gathered to watch, their smartphone­s recording the carnage.

The Grindadrap, or hunting of pilot whales and other sea mammals, is a fiercely defended totem of Faroese culture, the meat being shared out among participan­ts and the wider community. But on this occasion islanders themselves have – unusually – condemned the “rogue” hunt of dolphins for its sheer wanton scale. In 2019, 10 of the animals were killed, rising to 35 in 2020.

Hunters point out that global hypocrisy is at play, claiming the only material difference is that they slaughter their meat outside rather than primly hiding the process behind the walls of an abattoir. There is certainly an ethical debate to be had there, but our concerns are far more about species than surroundin­gs.

Here in Britain we wouldn’t dream of eating dogs, which we treasure as intelligen­t companions, yet we consume pigs, who are brighter, with impunity. Similarly, we have no issues getting stuck into fish and chips but, again due to their recognisab­le cleverness, we anthropomo­rphise dolphins. I’ve eaten guinea pig in Peru, crocodile on Mauritius – and, I confess, whale meat when I was in the Faroes.

Lunch at a local’s house was a buffet including thin, black slices of whale meat, eaten with tiny squares of transparen­t blubber. “Eat or don’t eat,” our hostess instructed. “Some people have strong opinions. But whale is part of our heritage.”

I tried it. The blubber was chewy and sweet. The meat, a mouthful of salty game. But together they tasted of – there are no other words for it – primeval sadness. I felt grief-stricken at a cellular level. My unconsciou­s mind was at play but it was also a reminder that our food preference­s are a cultural construct. So too is heritage. My hostess would not dream of serving endangered puffins, once a staple on every Faroese menu. Not all culinary customs are worth preserving.

The Faroe Islands are an autonomous territory within Denmark, not an isolated backwater; there are grass-roofed houses but undersea motorways, too. In the absence of whale meat nobody will go hungry. A major push is on to bring tourists to the Islands, giving rise to a familiar tension between tradition and progress. Nobody wants to visit a place where dolphins and whales are speared and stabbed at the shoreline.

The unalloyed truth is that if the Faroese want to invest in their future, they must be prepared to relinquish some of their past. However hard that might be to swallow.

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