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How can we protect the ground-nesting birds of the uplands from gull predation?

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Jeff Knott of the RSPB popped up BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, discussing the topic of urban gulls. A report from Natural England stated that three-quarters of herring gulls, in particular, are now nesting in towns and cities, rather than at sea or in marine environments.

The herring gull is a red-listed species, making it particularly hard to find a solution to the problem that urban herring gulls bring, such as stealing food and acting aggressively towards people and children, in particular. But all gulls are hard to control; in 2019 herring gulls and black-backed gulls were removed from the General License, making it almost impossible to control their numbers. Individual licences for the control of gulls can, in theory, be applied for; but in reality they are nigh-on impossible to come by.

On Today, Jeff Knott confirmed that gulls “are drawn into cities… because they have safe predator-free nesting areas and a ready source of food from the rubbish that we too often leave lying around.” While gull numbers are increasing in urban areas, they’re also drawn to moorland areas inland. But while in cities they feed on leftover human food, in the uplands, other creatures provide gulls with food. This includes the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds, including grouse, but also other species: red-listed curlew and lapwing, for example.

A tasty snack for seagulls

The herring gull was removed from the General Licence because it was claimed, as Knott repeated on Today, that "we’ve lost half of our herring gulls around coasting sites since 1969". What he didn't reveal is that in the reports of the 1970s and 80s, 'inland colonies were not counted during the first two national censuses, so, to enable direct comparison, the percentage change refers to coastal colonies only.’ So while we may have seen declining populations of coastal gulls, the birds are moving inland – and thriving.

In the moorlands, reports show that gull predation has significantly increased across 95% of upland estates since 2019. Some estates have reported losing up to 90% of their plover populations as a consequence.

As one gamekeeper in the Trough of Bowland found, of the 10,000 gulls in his area, one single licence was issued to cull gulls: a licence which allowed them to cull ten single gulls. “That’s not going to have any effect at all”, he commented.

[RSPB's Jeff Knott, with convicted animal rights criminal Luke Steele, and Mark Avery.]

So what is the answer? On Today, Knott blamed our poor marine environments for driving gulls inland. “We are mismanaging our marine environments badly, and that’s affecting all sorts of marine wildlife”, he said. “Gulls are one of the very adaptable species that have been able to move into our towns.” He argued that rather than talking about how to control gull numbers, we ought to be talking more about how we can adapt to live alongside gulls.

That's all very well for humans; yes, we can use 'gull-proof' bins and discourage our neighbours from feeding them. But what's Jeff's answer for the birds whose nests and chicks are destroyed by gulls on the moors?


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