Whale hunters taking part in "the grind" with red-blood water around themBBC THREE

"The grind": Stacey Dooley investigates a controversial, bloody whale hunting tradition

Campaigners and locals on the Faroe Islands disagree about a whale-killing tradition

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**Warning: This article contains graphic details and images about the killing of whales and dolphins**

Campaigners call it cruel and outdated. Whalers and locals say it's a traditional way of gathering food from nature, like any other meat.

But is there a place for whale hunting in 2020?

In her latest BBC documentary, Stacey Dooley travels to the Faroe Islands — a remote territory in the North Atlantic. Around 51,000 people live there and they have their own government, even though they're officially a part of Denmark.

There, Stacey investigates the traditional whale hunt, known locally as "the grind" (which rhymes with "binned" rather than "bind").  

Whale hunting herdingBBC THREE
Power boats and jet skis are used to herd the mammals

What is "the grind"?

"The grind", the killing of pilot whales and some white-sided and bottle-nosed dolphins, reportedly dates back 1,000 years on the islands.

And it can happen at any time. When someone spots a pod of the mammals, none of which are on the endangered list, they alert the so-called "grind master" who starts the hunt.

The grindBBC THREE

Locals use their power boats and jet skis to herd the animals into one of 26 bays. This herding can last as short at 30 minutes or take up to four or five hours.

Once ashore, the animals are slaughtered by hand and the water often runs red with blood as dozens of the creatures are killed. Families and children also gather to watch the hunt.

The kills are recorded and the meat is given away free to the people involved in the hunt.

The grindBBC THREE

Why are campaigners so upset?

Before anyone can take part in "the grind", they have to attend a two-hour class in order to receive a licence from a local veterinarian.

There they learn how to use a specially-designed spinal lance to cut the spinal cord of the whale or dolphin so that they will be paralysed. In that same moment, the blood supply to the brain is cut and the brain becomes immediately unconscious.

Whale hunting lanceBBC THREE
A whale hunter using a spinal lance during 'the grind'

However, in the documentary Stacey presents Kate Sanderson — who advises the Faroese government on responsible hunting — with a video showing one killing that lasted a very long time, with the animal thrashing around in the water.

"Is this cruel?" Stacey asks.

"There can be too much suffering for individual animals in some cases," Kate agrees after watching the video. "But it is a slaughter of wild animals in an uncontrolled environment, so it's never going to be completely clinical, like it might be in a slaughterhouse."

"Sure, it's a tradition but it's a form of food production," she adds. "It's a local resource. It's part of the diet. It's not a sport. It's a way of getting food for the family."

Kate Sanderson (left) advises the government on responsible hunting

In a statement responding to claims that some creatures are not killed quickly during "the grind", the Faroese government said the spinal lance is not effective on some smaller mammals and that they are working on bringing in new tools. 

One campaign group, called Sea Shepherd, has been coming to the Faroe Islands from other countries to protest "the grind" since the 1980s.

The traditional approach of Sea Shepherd has been to block and disrupt the hunts.

Sea shepherdBBC THREE
Members of Sea Shepherd who have been detained by police

But after many arrests and a legal ban stopping them from getting involved, they now post graphic images on social media instead to show what happens there.

Wayne, from Newcastle, is one of a group of international campaigners who live on the islands.

"We're not here to incite hatred," he says. "We're not here to make the world hate the Faroe Islands. We just want them to change their ways."

What do locals say?

The Faroese defend whaling as a traditional, environmentally-friendly way of getting their food.

Magnus is an engineer and "grind foreman" who's led many whale hunts over the last 20 years.

"I think the biggest difference [between Faroese and British culture] is we are taking all our food from nature," he says.

"I take breakfast at home, go out to my chickens and the eggs [are] there. It's so easy and I think it's our duty to use what we can get free from nature."

Stop whale huntingBBC THREE

Like many locals, he gets upset by criticism from foreigners.

"The people come here and tell us what we should do. We have done it for thousands of years, we know what we shall do.

"I think they will also be a bit angry if we… tell them what they should do at home."

"We need to bear in mind that this is not our country, this is not our culture," Stacey concludes in the documentary. "Some would argue this is not any of our business. It's polarising because both sides are fairly adamant that they're right."

But, she adds: "For all of us who eat meat, we need to be more honest about what we consume and where it comes from."

Stacey Dooley Investigates: The Whale Hunters is available on iPlayer in the UK.