KEITH the seal’s year-long stay in the river Severn could be about to come to an abrupt end.

Your Worcester News can exclusively reveal a major operation will be taking place today to catch the celebrity grey seal and return her to the sea.

And, fishy as it may sound, the plan is to lure Keith into a lock somewhere along the river and then into the clutches of expert divers using a trail of sardines.

Once she is inside the lock, crews from Upton-based water rescue organisation Mercia Inshore Search and Rescue (MISAR) and expert divers from British Divers Marine Life Rescue will leap into action and attempt to remove her from the water.

The operation will be led by the Angling Trust, which has been granted a licence by Natural England to catch Keith and arrange her safe transfer back to the sea.

Anglers have for months voiced concerns about the damage the unusual visitor has been doing to stocks of fish such as salmon and pike in the river Severn.

But now the conservation organisation has granted a licence to catch and release the seal for the reason of “preventing damage to fisheries”, despite the Environment Agency saying it does not believe Keith could have any impact on the overall levels of fish in the Severn.

The operation is expected to cost the Angling Trust more than £5,000.

Its fisheries enforcement manager Dilip Sarkar said: “The Angling Trust has now secured a licence from Natural England and all the other relevant permissions so that the experts from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue can return the seal to its natural habitat, where it can live alongside other seals.

“Plans are being formulated to carry out this rescue safely and carefully in due course.”

David Walker, team leader at MISAR, said the operation was “the most unusual request” his voluntary organisation has ever received.

“Seal hunting is not my normal occupation,” he said.

“But she has got to be collected. If she stays in the river she will die, it is as simple as that.

“The intention is to try and coax her into one of the big locks and get her hoisted out.”

He said they would be using salty sardines to lure her. “I think our chances of success are pretty reasonable,” he said.

“She is becoming quite tame and approaching boats regularly knowing that she can get food.”

However, British Divers Marine Life Rescue said Keith was in good health, and if it succeeded in catching the seal, it would be looking to take her away from the Severn and release her straight back into the sea.

It has not decided exactly where but somewhere off the Welsh coast is the most likely scenario.

“She will go straight back into the sea,” said a spokesman.

“There is nothing wrong with her, it is only because people don’t want her in the river that we are taking her out.”

An Environment Agency spokesman said its role had only been to advise of the impact on fish stocks.

“We don’t consider the seal could impact the overall population of fish in the river Severn, although we acknowledge there have been some localised impacts on angling activities on certain stretches of the river,” he said.

Natural England spokesman Lyndon Marquis confirmed that a licence “to capture and release one grey seal from the Canal and River Trust locks on the river Severn” was issued on November 8.