Seal sanctuary 'locked out' of its main base in Wexford


THE IRISH Seal Sanctuary, which has been rescuing distressed seal pups for more than 20 years, has been “locked out” of its main facility in Courtown, Co Wexford, following a dispute with its landlord, according to founder and co-director Brendan Price.

Three members of staff have had to be laid off as a result, he added, and the charity is without a headquarters as the seal-rescue season begins in earnest.

Early June traditionally marks the start of the season, as summer power-boating and water sports disturb waters and seal pups become separated from their mothers. When separated pups are found they are helpless, said Mr Price. They have to be hand-reared for about six weeks before they can be reintroduced to the water.

The dispute with landlords Gorey-Courtown Forest Park, which had been going on for several months, had “come to a head” and the sanctuary has been forced to pull out of any partnership, he said.

Seal pups would now have to be transferred to smaller facilities in Dingle, Co Kerry; Portaferry, Co Down; and to Cornwall.

The group moved to Courtown early last year at the invitation of community development organisation Gorey-Courtown Forest Park.

Up to then it had its headquarters in Garristown, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, having started in Mr Price’s home. The move was precipitated by the withdrawal of funding by Fingal County Council for a planned marine conservation facility by Fingal County Council.

The sanctuary had been attracted to the Gorey-Courtown Forest Park offer of a three-acre site near the beach, rent-free for a year with an operational loan of €250,000, said Mr Price, as it offered the opportunity to expand.

“They wanted us to relocate to Courtown as it would bring so much to the town. We would run a visitor’s centre. The idea was that the rent would then be based on 20 per cent of the capital development costs each year over the following five years.”

However, development was “too slow” and despite plans to be open by June last year, three of the four planned pools and most kennels were still not finished in September. Despite the difficulties, the sanctuary rescued and released 64 pups last year.

“There were further difficulties when I wouldn’t sign off on the quality of the pools. We were juggling funds to pay creditors, we were rotating the electricity supply so it wouldn’t blow and sometimes we had to take seals home. We got through that season, but it was a shambles.”

Relations had remained sour, Mr Price continued, and a month ago sanctuary staff were “locked out” of the facility. “As of now the site is still unfinished and there are Forest Park security guards on the site. Then two weeks ago the board had to let go the manager of the site and two duty managers.”

“They have now offered us an 11-month licence to operate, but we can’t plan or develop in such circumstances . . .”

When contacted, Tony Sutton, chairman of Gorey-Courtown Forest Park, said questions should be directed to the sanctuary. When asked if he would like to outline its view of the dispute, he said: “There are no sides in this. I have nothing to say on it.”

The Irish Seal Sanctuary is funded through public donations and grants from the Departments of Environment and Agriculture.