As a Cornish resident, I have been accosted by seagulls on more than one occasion. The most notable time was walking down a popular Cornish high street, preparing to eat my lunch. As I lifted the food up to my mouth ready to take that first delicious bite, I felt two feet plant themselves firmly on top of my head. Split seconds later, a beaked face peered down into mine, grabbed my food and threw it to the floor before several lurking bystanders launched themselves at the sandwich in what can only be described as a feeding frenzy. The incident for me was highly amusing; a funny anecdote which I have regaled when swapping (highly common) seagull attack stories. But many coastal towns across Britain feel they are being besieged by gulls and we have seen growing reports of people being hurt and pets being killed. The Prime Minister has even waded in on the debate and an investigation by ITV found that 29% of people have had a holiday moment ruined by seagulls, with many now starting to call for a cull.
But is a bad day on the beach really enough for us to start killing birds?
Contrary to common belief, there is no such thing as a ‘Seagull’. The notorious species which we are often referring to is the European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). This is the most common of the 11 gull species in the UK, as well as being the largest and the noisiest. Herring gulls are omnivores and their natural diet would mainly consist of fish, shellfish, invertebrates, smaller birds and eggs. But an increase in humans populating coastal areas and an incredible ability to adapt by the gulls has led to trawling through garbage and stealing. As food sources have increased, more birds are choosing to nest in urban areas to take advantage of the food availability for their chicks. And with chicks comes aggression and it is this which is starting to become a big issue. Gulls are becoming braver; they are less frightened of humans and see them as a source of food. Many people who live in coastal areas have a story about a gull brazenly stealing food but more recently these stories have changed from a simple act of theft to one where people and animals are being attacked – even killed.
So what can we do to try and reduce this aggressive behaviour?
The word “cull” has been thrown about, but we need to look at the reasons why gulls are becoming a nuisance in the first place. The birds are opportunistic and unfortunately, we are giving them lots of chances to behave badly. Despite many councils making it clear that people should not feed gulls, there are still lots of people who find it an enjoyable past time. Offering up food to gulls and enticing them to come closer will only reinforce this bad behaviour. Offering food = Gull comes closer to human = human gives Gull reward. This teaches the gull that humans are a food source and that they can be approached in order to retrieve food. Many will then simply, understandably, take food.
Another issue is our refuse. Many people still throw rubbish on the floor and this includes discarded food and food packaging. This will encourage pests to a town to find scraps. This has been taken a step further by Gulls however as they will happily raid refuse areas to get what they want. Every town has that one day a week where bins have been left out in bin bags and the gulls have destroyed them; ripping through the flimsy sacks and scattering the contents across the street to find morsels. Despite councils selling gull appropriate refuse sacks and offering bins, people still choose to simply put out sacks week after week encouraging the gulls to take their plunder. These are areas which we should be focusing on to try and prevent food being so readily available to gulls. If they realise they cannot get food as easily as before, they will have to go elsewhere to find sources and this will encourage them to go back to natural hunting. Another area we can focus on is fishing catch. Many fishermen will gut their fish on beaches and ports. Gulls will congregate in these areas, fighting for the scraps which are flung on the floor or in the water next to the shore and left to rot. The main reason why we see such aggression from gulls is breeding season. When gulls have nests they become very protective and it is this behaviour which has led to recent animal deaths. Many gulls choose to nest in urban areas, it is close to food and our chimneys pots and roofs make excellent sites for them to bring up their young. This has only occurred since the 1940’s and whilst it is not known what caused this, there is likely a correlation between our behaviour and theirs.
In Britain, Gulls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means you cannot harm them or touch their nests although councils are allowed to issue licences for birds to be disposed of or nests to be destroyed if the birds are a risk to human or animal health and safety. In fact, only last month over 600 gull eggs were destroyed by Devizes Council in Wiltshire. The town felt they had been terrorised by the birds for too long and set up a petition to have them culled before the upcoming tourist season. In July of this year, a man from Falmouth killed a Herring Gull. Peter Smale, 57, restrained the bird and then repeatedly struck it till it was dead. He was jailed for 16 weeks for the offence.
More worryingly, here in Cornwall a Yorkshire Terrier called Roo was ‘killed by gulls’ earlier this year. Roo’s owner, who lives in Newquay, had nesting gulls on her roof and found her dog covered in marks which she believed resembled those of a birds peck. Her three year old child said there were birds involved. Roo’s owner has young children and she is concerned that the gulls might do something to them. This attack was followed by a report that a tortoise had died from injuries inflicted by gulls in Launceston. A Chihuahua was also reportedly killed by gulls in Devon in May. Many people are now arguing that they should be allowed to move nests to prevent something like this happening again and the Deputy Mayor of Truro Council has begged the Government to help the County by sending Defra to the South West to tackle the issue. There are things the everyone can do to stop gulls nesting in their buildings. Some councils are investing in ‘Anti Seagull Paint'; a paint which causes a reflective surface which the gulls find off putting, anti gull spikes can be put in chimney pots meaning they cannot sit or nest.
So what impact would a cull have? The idea behind the cull is that we would be reducing gull numbers and therefore the threat would lessen, however without adjusting our behaviour, their behaviour would not be checked and the problems will remain. In fact, numbers of Herring gull are currently declining as their productivity (chicks fledging per pair) has been decreasing – the reason for this is currently unknown. The RSPB state that breeding sites are now limited to only ten locations. Another fear over culling of birds or eggs is that many may not know the difference between gull species or their eggs and this could lead to us destroying gulls which are not a nuisance. Many eggs, chicks and fledglings look quite similar and there are fears that this will lead to the wrong species being destroyed.
It could easily be possible that the decline in numbers is closely linked to the recent behaviour. Most populations of gull species are in decline and whilst the sources of these declines are still unknown, it is thought that they are linked to lack of available food resources. The lack of food availability is down to habitat destruction, over fishing and pollution – all factors of our behaviour. If there was enough food, shelter and nesting sites available to these species, they wouldn’t have the need to encroach on our space.
Gulls can be a nuisance however they play a part in our ecosystem and they are an icon of the British Seaside. Before we start rushing to our fall back plan of culling, we need to think about our behaviour and the impact that we have on other species, rather than just the impact they have on us. Killing birds or destroying nests will not stop the problem, it will merely reduce it for a short time.
We need to stop giving gulls the opportunities we hand out so freely, then chastising when they choose to take them.
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