THE JAW of a 43ft sperm whale washed up on a beach was stolen as part of a centuries-old tradition among fishermen, police revealed yesterday.

Grampian Police confirmed the jaw, removed illegally from Roseisle on the Moray coast early on Monday, had been returned.

Fishermen had wanted to use the jaw and teeth of the whale, washed up on Sunday, for the ancient art of Scrimshaw, police said.

Scrimshaw - making carvings of pictures and lettering on the surface of bone or tooth - goes back almost 200 years. Whaling crews originally used the byproducts of the mammals to create tools and ornaments.

The craft survived on whaling ships until the ban on commercial whaling by British crews in the 1960s.

Conservationists were "appalled and saddened" when they discovered the 45tonne sperm whale's carcass was missing its 400lb jaw, and the jawbone was returned after police negotiated with Moray fishing communities.

No details have been given of those responsible, and no one has been charged in connection with the incident.

Grampian Police wildlife crime officer Mike Middlehurst, who negotiated the return of the jawbone, said efforts would be made to ensure parts would end up in a local visitor centre.

Moray Council is now planning an operation to remove the whale.

The council's environmental protection manager, Ian Bruce, said it would be cut into pieces at a local abattoir and taken for incineration.

He said difficult access to the site as well as the whale's considerable weight meant its removal in one piece would be impossible.

The public have been urged not to get too close to the animal for the sake of their own health.