Birds behaving badly: live and let live?

The idea that we might rather live alongside these gulls seems to have been almost entirely lost in the debate.
- Sarah Trotter
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Councils across the UK are using a wide range of measures to deal with the nuisance posed by urban gulls, according to new research. Despite this, many councils reported that they have not managed to crack the gull problem.

Sarah Trotter, Assistant Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), analysed the way in which urban-nesting gulls are portrayed in public discourse, as well as the wide range of measures adopted by local authorities across the UK to regulate gulls nesting in towns and cities. The birds are associated with many problems: early morning noise in residential areas; mess and disease risk from droppings and scavenging in bins; and aggression, both when stealing food and when defending nests and chicks. The study says they appear to be the most unpopular birds in Britain and cites a YouGov poll in 2015 indicating that 44 per cent of the public supported the idea of a ‘gull cull’, 36 per cent of respondents were opposed to a cull and 20 per cent answered ‘don’t know’.

Trotter examined information held on the websites and publicly-available documents of all 418 principal councils across the UK, as well as local news reports. She also sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the 75 councils where problems with gulls were particularly apparent, asking about the numbers of complaints, the types of measures taken and the cost.

Despite many species of gull being protected by law, it is the way in which they are portrayed as having a capacity to attack that means they are regarded as more of a pest than pigeons, the study suggests. For example, Scarborough Borough Council encourages residents to report ‘gull attacks’ by completing an online ‘seagull mugging and nuisance report form’.

It is an issue that provokes strong feelings, both pro- and anti-gull, and was even debated by MPs in Westminster Hall in 2017. The study describes how MPs debated the issue in emotive terms, for example, the Aberdeen seagull was described as “the size of a large dog” and there was also mention of residents “wandering the streets of Berwick with firearms” to “take the law into their own hands”. In Maryport, gulls had even caused delays to postal deliveries. Many MPs demanded more resources and changes to legislation but the government insisted that existing legislation was adequate for councils to combat the problem.

The study found that local authorities expend significant resources trying to come to grips with gull-related problems, with measures adopted ranging from control measures targeted at the birds themselves through to measures targeted at people who like feeding gulls.

Preventive measures taken directly against gulls include bird-proofing buildings such as spikes and bird-netting, the use of ‘gull-proof’ heavy duty bin bags, and gull ‘scarers’ such as plastic owls. Disruptive measures include the flying of birds of prey to disrupt nesting gulls, egg and nest removal, egg oiling to prevent hatching, replacing real eggs with imitation eggs, and chick removal.

Measures against people who enjoy feeding gulls include fixed penalty notices, warning letters or visits by council wardens. Others include signage to deter feeding, public awareness campaigns and the distribution of advice and information to local businesses and households in areas where there are particular problems.

Increasing numbers of councils use Public Spaces Protection Orders to prohibit people from gull-feeding. East Devon District Council was the first to introduce such an order. Its Seashores and Promenades Public Spaces Protection Order of 2017 makes ‘feeding seagulls’ an offence with a fixed penalty notice of £80.

The study says: “All these measures aim to remove or decrease the numbers of gulls from urban spaces; and a number of councils reported committing significant resources to this end, particularly in the first year of any control programme. Despite this, many councils reported that they have not managed to crack the gull ‘problem’.”

One example was from Cardiff where a council manager reporting to the council’s Environmental Scrutiny Committee said that gulls are “unlike all of the other ‘problem species’” for two reasons. “First, gulls are not confined to a single centre of activity. They move widely and are perfectly capable of making a round trip of 100km in search of food in only a few hours. Second, they are considerably more intelligent than most and despite the best efforts of pest control agencies to deter or remove them, colonies have continued to expand.”

Trotter believes that positive aspects of gulls and public support for them are often “glossed over” by councils and local media in favour of increasing use of anti-social behaviour orders. She cites successful public campaigns, in 2016 and 2018, to protect a colony of Kittiwake gulls nesting around the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle which were threatened by bird-proofing measures including netting and an electric shock system. Admittedly, this species is smaller and less aggressive than some.

She commented yesterday: “Councils are expending significant time and resources on measures that are not only largely ineffective but that also stem from – and further reinforce – the narrative that urban-nesting gulls are indeed urban pests. The idea that we might rather live alongside these gulls seems to have been almost entirely lost in the debate.”

Birds behaving badly: the regulation of seagulls and the construction of public space is published in the Journal of Law and Society.

The regulation of urban gulls across the UK: a study of control measures is published in the journal British Birds.