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Gulls continue to decimate ground nesting birds, thanks to the infallible threesome at Wild Justice



As you read this, somewhere in the uplands, a large gull will be killing and eating the eggs or chicks of a rare ground nesting bird.


In this country there are 130,000 pairs of herring gulls, 110,000 pairs of lesser black backed gulls, and 17,000 pairs of greater black backed gulls. That's 257,000 pairs.


In round figures around half a million individual birds. All are predatory and all will be not just feeding themselves but also foraging as the year goes on for 2-4 growing offspring.


To that must be added the non-breeders, which, as they don't breed for the first four years of their lives, probably doubles the population currently scouring the countryside for food.


It would not be unreasonable to say that there are a million large gulls patrolling the skies looking for prey.




It was not always like this. These gulls used to be much less dominant. In 1953 the total winter population of lesser black backed gulls was said to be under 200. What happened? How can the numbers of a relatively uncommon predator simply explode? Explode they did.


The wintering population of lesser black backed gulls went from 165 in 1953 to 125,113 in 2003/4. There were several factors. One was the decline in the practice of collecting their eggs to use as human food, thanks to their breeding sites being increasingly protected.


Another was the growth of landfill sites where they could find vast amounts of waste food.


The third was the practice of throwing dead fish and offal from fishing boats which, again, provided vast amounts of easy food.




Interestingly, the exponential growth in population was not the result of the ending of the local control of gull numbers to protect ground nesting birds.


Throughout the period of growth these gulls were on the General Licence and could be culled for conservation purposes and often were, by farmers, gamekeepers and, to a larger than usual extent, by the conservation industry.


Whilst this localised control stopped problems very effectively, it did nothing to check the rapid rise in the national population.


The main reason for the conservation industry killing gulls has usually been their capacity to wipe out tern colonies.


The need to do this continues to this day but the RSPB have cut their culls right back in recent years showing annual killing of very small numbers of adult gulls and the destruction of larger numbers of their eggs.


In the past, when the the industry had more courage and was not prepared to sacrifice rare species, simply to avoid having to explain their actions to a few outraged animal rightists, numbers were much larger but even then, none of it had an impact on the population beyond where the control took place.


An interesting insight is provided by an article in the Times in 1982, when the large gull population was still a fraction of what it is now. We read the following:


“Culling (by RSPB) is limited to the commonest types of seagull, particularly the herring gull, whose population has exploded in the last 10 years because of its increasing ability to live off the discarded detritus of human eating, from rubbish tips to the remains of seaside fish suppers. An overpopulation of gulls has driven less common birds in particular the roseate tern, from many of its traditional nesting sites on British offshore islands.


The society conducts regular gull culls on three islands known to be roseate tern breeding grounds. Coquet Island off the coast of Northumberland; Horse Island, off the Ayrshire coast; and Inchmickery in the Firth of Forth, off Edinburgh. The society said that the largest cull was on Coquet Island, where the number of gulls killed annually was around 20 pairs.”


It then explains that they used alphachloralose dosed sandwiches to kill the gulls. They then went on:

“The society estimates that since the beginning of the century, the herring gull population of the North Atlantic has increased approximately thirty fold; in the past 20 years, however, the roseate terns, also known as the sea swallow, has been reduced by more than two-thirds, to about 2,000 that nest here.

On Coquet, the gull population has diminished from 700 to 40 in five years, while in the same period the roseate tern population has doubled to 70. Terns have also increased on the two Scottish islands in recent years..”.


RSPB also pointed out that the Nature Conservancy Council operated on a far bigger scale and had reduced the gull population on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth from 34,000 to 6,000.


At the time all this was going on, and happily the rare roseate tern was being saved from imminent extinction, the national population of large gulls continued to rocket upwards, increasing in the next decade by around 40%, and that on top of the increase in the preceding 80 years of, according to RSPB, of 3000%. So what we can be sure of is that local control works, the RSPB demonstrated that fact, and that killing even large numbers of gulls (remember farmers and gamekeepers were also taking them at this time) had no impact on the growth in the national population.


The populations of both herring and lesser black backed gulls have fallen back in recent years, with the closure or better management, of many landfill sites, and the changes to commercial fishing that was expected, but the huge numbers quoted are after the rebalancing, not before it.


So to recap, there are probably around a million large gulls looking for an easy meal, there is evidence that culling them locally is effective in reducing damage to rare birds, who might disappear without that culling, and there is evidence that such culling has no impact whatsoever on the national population.




Why does any of this matter? Because Natural England, having moved LBBG and herring gulls from the General licence to an Individual Licence, has now changed the protocol for issuing that licence so that it is effectively impossible to cull large gulls for conservation purposes in the countryside. Even madder you may still get a licence to kill them in a town if they cause a nuisance. The impact of this has been as dramatic as moorland communities knew it would be.


In April and May 2020 gamekeepers across the UK's uplands carried the largest survey of recorded incidents of predation by gulls across c.80% of moorland managed for driven grouse shooting in the north of England.


Using GPS they recorded the number of predated eggs and chicks of Lapwing, Curlew, Golden Plover and other birds of conservation concern, such as Oystercatcher and Merlin.


In total, they found 1,328 destroyed eggs or chick remains of these vulnerable species attributable to predation by gulls, largely Lesser Black-Backed and Herring Gulls. That is just over a two month period and only what they saw. The true figure is likely to be much higher.


This data was supplied to Natural England by the GWCT to demonstrate the devastating impact that their licencing policy was having on ground nesting waders.


Nearly all moorland estates managed by gamekeepers are designated as European Protected Sites (SPA or SAC) and only one Estate in the whole of England was granted a gull licence by NE last year, with a similar theme playing out on the ground again this year.


The staggering damage that gulls have done, and continue to do, to some of our rarest and most threatened birds last spring was laid bare by last year’s survey and is entirely the consequence of NE’s disastrous policy of preventing/capping rural gull control.


With a repeat performance this spring from NE’s licence department (blanket gull licence refusals on moorlands) and to the huge frustration of moorland managers, our rarest moorland birds are once again being left to suffer unlimited predation at the beaks of predatory gulls - with the stamp of approval from NE.





But does it really matter? After all RSPB abandoned regular culls to protect roseate terns ages ago. Well you could always ask the roseate terns how it went. After all, with the RSPB culling regularly numbers were rising rapidly and had reached a very satisfactory 2000 pairs, so there should be plenty to ask. Sadly not. They have almost entirely gone. They cling to existence on Coquet Island but the total in the whole of England, Scotland, Wales and the island of Ireland, is no more than 70 pairs and most of them are in Eire.


But at least Natural England and RSPB won't be attacked on social media and dragged to judicial review by the infallible threesome at Wild Justice, Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery, for doing what is obviously necessary to save rare things being eaten into extinction by common ones.