Gulls wiping out ground nesting waders and still conservation organisations do nothing
We make no apology for returning repeatedly to the plight of curlew, lapwing and other ground nesting waders, as not only does it show the extraordinary failings of the conservation industry and its supine acolytes in regulators it is also of vital importance to the very survival of these species.
This was brought home by a recent visit to see an amazing concentration of breeding waders, on a moor that probably has as many breeding pairs of curlew as the whole of England south of the Cotswolds. It was, to say the least, a very depressing affair. Everywhere you looked when we arrived there were curlew, lapwing and snipe either sitting on eggs or with recently hatched broods of three or four chicks. They were there because years of management as a grouse moor, by competent gamekeepers, ensured that foxes, stoats and crows, were in very small numbers at this most critical time of the year, and as a result nest predation was very low.
By the time we left a few days later, most pairs were down to a single chick and by now they are probably all gone. The reason was chillingly obvious. There is a huge gull colony a few miles away and every day wave after wave of large gulls drifted low over the fields and moors looking for food. Every time the distracted lapwing and curlew rose to mob them but they just kept coming, hour after hour, day after day. The parents might have to mob marauders, scores, if not hundreds of times a day, leaving no time to feed themselves or attend to their offspring. Every now and again there would be an explosion of gull activity as one grabbed a chick and the rest piled in to steal it.
The estate had of course applied for a licence to cull some of the gulls, which would at least make them wary and possibly less efficient. But, of course, Natural England hadn't given them one. It was allegedly in the system, but if it ever arrives, which it probably won't, it will of course be too late and the whole application farce will have to be repeated next year, with the certainty of the same pitiable results.
How can it be that some of the UK's most abundant generalist predators with populations running to over a million, and in no danger whatsoever of extinction, can be allowed to wipe out one of the few remaining strongholds of birds that are already de facto extinct over most of England and Wales, and in the case of the curlew, are listed internationally as a species of the Highest Conservation Concern?
The answer is that the UK's approach to species conservation is fatally flawed. The legislation inherited from Europe is bad, the system of assessing status is absurd, and the people who implement it are, all too often, dysfunctional bureaucrats, terrified of challenge by ghastly Chris Packham and his angry little followers.
Let us begin by going back to old fashioned logic. The gull colony which is causing the problem is entirely unnatural. Forty years ago it hardly existed. It only came into being because of the disposal of refuse at open landfill sites within easy reach. The gulls are nesting on heather moorland, unprotected by cliffs or water barriers. In a natural state the first bear or herd of wild boar that wandered up there would eat their way through every nest. At any point since the last Ice Age human beings would have been just as quick to harvest the delicious eggs, arguably something just as natural as the bear or boar options. After all, these large gulls, herring and lesser black back, evolved alongside these predators, including us, and survived accordingly. That is why, until recently, they nested on vertiginous sea cliffs and remote islands.
We have created an entirely unnatural state. We have removed the predators, including ourselves, created an unnatural food source and the rare wildlife are paying the price. Actually it's worse than that. The gulls are completely trashing the environment. They nest in the heather. Their droppings and vomit kill the vegetation and expose the peat. The peat is then either washed away in the rain, or when it dries, simply blows away. They don't like nesting on the bare, eroded peat, so next season they move to the adjacent vegetated ground and repeat the process. In places the peat has completely gone. Actually, it's worse even than that, because they wash, and leave tons of their droppings, in drinking water supply reservoirs, which as a result wouldn't even pass bathing water standards. To render the water safe for drinking, the water company just relies on treatment and prayer.
But these birds are rare. Aren't they? Well, they appear to be, according to the people who list the status of our wild birds. Lesser black backs are amber listed and herring gulls are in the highest, red list, category. So they must be rare and at risk of extinction. Mustn't they?
For comparison let us look at another species which is unquestionably rare, the stone curlew. There has been justifiable rejoicing that this enigmatic species reached a breeding population of 350 pairs and moved from red to amber listing. That seems fair enough. A rational view would seem to support the idea that over 350 pairs could be fairly robust, and below 350 we might need to worry. So how does this compare to our gulls? The colony that are eating all the lapwing and curlew chicks, itself numbers in excess of 20,000 pairs, mostly amber listed lesser black backs but some red listed herring gulls. The total UK population of both species is impossible to know accurately because so many know nest in towns but RSPB recently gave estimates of breeding populations of 140,000 pairs of herring gulls and 112,000 pairs of lesser black backs.
As neither species normally breeds until they are 4 years old, to that breeding total of over half a million gulls, must be added three or four years supply of juveniles, probably as many again as the adult population. That gets their combined populations well over a million individuals. Yet the herring gull is of higher conservation concern than the 700 or so stone curlews, and that genuinely rare bird is apparently of no greater concern than a lesser black back whose population is numbered in hundreds of thousands.
This is of course ridiculous, and an amusing example of how arbitrary rules can confound common sense. But it is actually worse than that, the outcome of this stupidity is not funny, it is tragic. As a consequence of these listing and the craven manner in which the regulator uses them as an excuse for doing nothing, rare birds are being literally wiped from the landscape, the landscapes themselves are being trashed, carbon rich peat is blowing and washing away, and water supplies are polluted.
How can these things happen? Well, it is simple really. There are seven criteria for red listing and seven for amber listing but a species only has to meet one of the seven to be listed. The Herring gull is red because the population has declined significantly and the lesser black back because over 50% of its population occurs on 10 or less sites. You will notice that neither of these criteria have anything to do with the actual size of the population, only its change and location.
Herring gulls used to be quite rare birds, but whilst exact figures are impossible to find, the best estimate for the total UK breeding population at the beginning of the twentieth century, is in the low hundreds, quite possibly as low as 200 pairs.
Numbers rose slowly at first, but inexorably, and for decades they increased by a staggering 13% per annum. Since the peak, herring gull numbers have indeed declined, but that decline was predicted. As fishing grounds and methods changed, and landfill site management improved, it was expected that the numbers would reduce and they have. But they are not rare, in any meaningful sense of the word. It is inconceivable that they are in any danger of extinction when their breeding population is well over 200,000 individuals. Yet they enjoy a higher risk status than a bird whose population is the low hundreds. Why?
Lesser black backs are perhaps an even worse example. According to expert opinion over 50% of nests are not found on 10 sites or less, simply because this claim is based on only counting protected sites and ignoring those breeding elsewhere. Interestingly there is no hard evidence that lesser black backs are declining in numbers and for years they maintained an estimated rate of increase even greater, at 16%, than the stratospheric rise of the herring gull.
The 50% on 10 or less sites criterion, is itself based on the concern that a single catastrophic event could wipe out such a localised breeding species, but no one has explained how this could happen to a species numbered in hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs and with half the population made up of non-breeding juveniles waiting in the wings.
Even stranger is the fact that until recently the conservation industry killed gulls frequently, regularly and often on a grand scale. Between 1972 and 1986 the Nature Conservancy Council killed well over 45,000 herring gulls on the Isle of May. At the same time RSPB were killing large but unreported numbers of herring gulls, mostly to protect terns, and the National Trust killed thousands on the Farne Islands. So what has changed, apart from the fear of Chris' keyboard warriors?
The problems these voracious birds unquestionably cause were kept under control when they were on the General Licence and could be culled. Removing them and giving them as high a state of protection as genuinely rare and endangered birds such as curlew, was by any standards difficult to understand. To continue to refuse allow humane control of a ubiquitous generalist predator, in no risk whatsoever of becoming rare, let alone extinct, when a child can see that they are driving rare species to local extinction, borders on insanity.
Everyone knows all this is true. They will admit it in private but never in public. Why can't the regulators act? Why is the conservation industry in general, and the RSPB in particular, silent? When the curlew and lapwing have all gone, it is very clear where the blame will lie, and it won't be with the gamekeepers and moor owners who have to watch the massacre of the chicks, it will be with those who kept silent, and those who were too frightened to simply do the right thing.
But let us look on the bright side, the loss of these wonderful birds will undoubtedly create an excellent funding opportunity for RSPB to add yet more millions to the money they have already had to 'Save the curlew'. Shameful does not begin to cover it.