By Viola Ross-Smith
As I write, it’s late February and spring is in the air. During recent evenings, I’ve noticed large V’s of Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscusflying north over Thetford. Half a century ago, these birds would almost certainly have been individuals returning from their wintering grounds in southern Europe and North Africa. Now it’s possible that they are birds heading to a local roost, having wintered here in East Anglia. They are becoming more vocal too, suggesting that some are scoping out breeding territories on the rooftops of the town’s industrial estates, in an urban gull colony that has become established only since I moved to the area in 2010. Like other large gull species worldwide, the Lesser Black-backed Gull in the UK, along with the closely related Herring Gull L. argentatus, has adapted to anthropogenic changes in its natural environment, trading clifftops covered in Thrift Armeria maritimafor urban rooftops, marine fish for human refuse and in some cases foregoing migration (Camphuysen 2013; Ross-Smith et al. 2014).
While some might view the successful adaptations of large gulls as a refreshing counterpoint to the general, depressing trend of species being pushed to extinction by human activities, this perspective is not dominant. BB readers will be well aware that a British summer now hardly seems complete without a slew of news stories depicting ‘seagulls’ as the scourge of our skies. My personal perception is that such coverage went from the amusing ‘silly season’-style reports of gulls shoplifting packets of crisps to something more malign in 2015 when, following the deaths of two pet dogs and a tortoise, purportedly at the beaks of gulls, there was an avalanche of negative press, with gulls widely described as ‘psychotic’ and ‘bloodthirsty’ pests that needed to be controlled (Carr & Reyes-Galindo 2017). The then Prime Minister David Cameron declared the need for a ‘big conversation’ on the issue, while the hitherto unknown Gull Awareness Group was widely quoted as warning that gulls would soon eat babies. This narrative has continued, and I would be extremely surprised if we do not see similar headlines in the coming months.
It’s easy to dismiss these stories as overblown and uninformed, but they could have a real impact. In recent years, there have been vigilante revenge attacks on gulls involving shooting and poisoning. Clips have even been shared on social media of people killing gulls. Not only is this behaviour potentially unsafe to the general public, it is illegal. All British gulls are protected by the European Birds Directive (2009/147/EC), transcribed into British law as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA 1981). However, as Brexit looms, could this legislation be unpicked to loosen their protection? When ‘seagulls’ were debated in parliament on 7th February 2017, Thérèse Coffey, Under Secretary of State at Defra and MP for Suffolk Coastal, where various urban and rural gull colonies are found, conceded that changes to the law could be considered ‘when the opportunity is there’, after we leave the EU. If legislation is amended to implement stricter controls on gulls, could this set a precedent for revisiting the protection of other species whose ecology and behaviour conflict with human interests?
It is worth remembering that Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls can already be legally, routinely and sometimes controversially controlled (for example, the removal of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Bowland, in Lancashire;http://bit.ly/2q5Qa2y) using General and Class Licences issued under the WCA 1981. I fear that any additional control measures taken as a result of public opinion based on the pervasive, unfavourable view of ‘seagulls’ would not be effective. For a start, vilification of members of several seabird species, with their distinct ecologies, as part of a single ‘seagull’ entity might help to explain why, for example, nesting Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla have been shot by members of the public in Bridlington and Scarborough in recent years. When attempts are made to differentiate between species, they often miss the mark. For example, The Sun published an ID guide in July 2015 (along with a ‘danger rating’ for each species) in which several of the species were misidentified, including a Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis labelled as an Iceland Gull L. glaucoides.
Even with the correct ID skills, additional controls on Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls could be based on misinformation. Media reports of attacks often conflate the way these species vigorously defend their eggs and young with their opportunistic feeding behaviour, whereby several individuals will swoop down to grab food and attempt to steal it from one another, or indeed an unsuspecting tourist enjoying an ice cream. Such food theft, although unsettling and annoying, is not an attack. Furthermore, when attacks do happen, they are short-lived, provided the object of the gull’s distress moves away, which is at odds with media reports of people being chased for miles. Perhaps people would be less afraid of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls if they could distinguish between true attacks and a bird looking for a bite to eat?
Related to this, GPS tracking technology has now confirmed what we already suspected from studies of gulls’ diet. Individual gulls have feeding specialisations, so not every urban bird will steal chips – many will fly long distances to rural, coastal and maritime areas to eat very different foods; conversely, some birds nesting on clifftops and sand dunes fly to cities to forage (Camphuysen 2013; Rock et al. 2016). Measures to control birds nesting in urban areas could therefore fail if the ‘wrong’ birds are removed from the population, leaving the food thieves unscathed.
There is also the thorny issue of population control itself, given the conservation status of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The Herring Gull is on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red list, while the Lesser Black-backed Gull is on the Amber list (Eaton et al. 2015). These classifications reflect the status of these species at rural and coastal colonies, rather than in urban areas, where the population is rising and the range expanding (Rock 2005; Balmer et al. 2013). Previous seabird censuses are thought to have underestimated urban gull numbers (Coulson & Coulson 2015). The latest national seabird census, Seabirds Count, should address this important knowledge gap and determine whether declines at rural and coastal colonies are being offset by a rise in birds nesting on rooftops. Without this information, it will be impossible to make informed decisions about appropriate additional management (if any) for these species.
More broadly, and since urban gulls aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, what can we do to help people live alongside unpopular species? Many commentators now lament the disconnect between the general public and nature. Celebrating the wildlife that can thrive in our midst is one way of combatting that. As programmes like Springwatchshow, nest cameras on rooftop gulls can be engaging and help to demystify these birds. I’m also pleased to see the success of storytelling projects involving GPS tracking. Whenever I have spoken to people about my own work tagging gulls, they are amazed at the tales I can tell about individual birds, such as Romeo and Juliet, a pair from Orford Ness. Romeo spent his winters in and around Poole Harbour, in Dorset, while Juliet preferred Lisbon. One autumn, in Hampshire, the pair missed each other by 15 minutes at Ibsley Water, before tragedy struck: Romeo moved to Felixstowe and Juliet perished in Lisbon. People often tell me they had absolutely no idea that gulls led such fascinating lives and will see them differently from that point forth. I have also worked with local businesses in St Ives, Cornwall, to produce fast-food takeaway wrapping explaining gull behaviour and ecology, including information on how to avoid having food stolen, which proved to be a popular initiative.
As a trained scientist, I have to fight my impulse to always argue the case for gulls with evidence and reason. Although these should form the pillars on which any policy decisions are made, they are not always effective at winning over hearts and minds. Many people dislike being bludgeoned with the facts, and only become more convinced of their views when confronted this way. Perhaps a gentler approach, appealing more to people’s emotions, is needed to overcome such confirmation biases (Dahlstrom 2014). Perhaps only then clear-sighted decisions can be made that allow us to coexist peacefully with gulls.
Balmer, D. E., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B. J., Swann, R. L., Downie, I. S., & Fuller, R. J. 2013. Bird Atlas 2007–11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford.
Camphuysen, C. J. 2013. A historical ecology of two closely related gull species (Laridae): multiple adaptations to a man-made environment. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Groningen.
Carr, L., & Reyes-Galindo, L. 2017. ‘The Year of the Gull’: demonization of wildlife, pestilence and science in the British press. In: Reyes-Galindo, L., & Ribeiro Duarte, T. (eds.), Intercultural Communication and Science and Technology Studies, pp. 147–174. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Coulson, J. C., & Coulson, B. A. 2015. The accuracy of urban nesting gull censuses. Bird Study 62: 170–176.
Dahlstrom, M. F. 2014. Using narrative and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 111 (Suppl. 4): 13614–13620.
Eaton, M. A., et al. 2015. Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the population status of birds in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Brit. Birds 108: 708–746.
Rock, P. 2005. Urban gulls: problems and solutions. Brit. Birds 98: 338–355.
—, Camphuysen, C. J., Shamoun-Baranes, J., Ross-Smith, V. H., & Vaughan, I. P. 2016. Results from the first GPS tracking of roof-nesting Herring Gulls Larus argentatus in the UK. Ringing & Migration 31: 47–62.
Ross-Smith, V. H., Robinson, R. A., Banks, A. N., Frayling, T. D., Gibson, C. C., & Clark, J. A. 2014. The Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus in England: how to resolve a conservation conundrum. Seabird 27: 41–61.
Viola Ross-Smithis currently on maternity leave from her role as Science Communications Manager at the BTO. Prior to this, she devoted several years to gull research, initially during her PhD and then as an Ecologist for the BTO.