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What are the RSPB doing to protect endangered birds from gulls?



As anyone who spends time on the moors knows, gulls are becoming an increasing problem. The problem has been made worse in the last year by the fact that Natural England, who are in charge of General Licensing, allowed almost no gull control licences for moorland or inland areas. This decision has had a devastating effect on ground-nesting birds, with gamekeepers simply having to look on as nests and chicks are destroyed by predatory gulls. 

In this month’s Field magazine, Charles Nodder writes of how keepers on 56 grouse moors recorded 1,355 incidents of gulls attacking nests. This, of course, will be only the tip of the iceberg. It is also unprecedented. As Charles writes, “In 2019, NE issued licences for killing 6,050 adults gulls, and destroying 40,000 gull eggs. Before that, herring and lesser black-backed gulls were on General Licences, allowing culling without numerical restriction.” 

The usual response to complaints about the issue is that “gamekeepers only care about protecting their grouse.” But this is far from the truth. The upland moors of the UK are home to thousands of amber and red-listed species, who choose to breed on the moors, in large part due to the moorland management carried out by gamekeepers. 

A piece in this week’s Spectator magazine by Tim Newark also focuses on the damage caused by gulls, arguing that far from being endangered, they are a menace. The reason for NE’s decision to vastly restrict gull control licences was, he writes, based on science which is highly flawed. The census which states that gull numbers had fallen by 60% “is based only on coastal populations and takes little account of gulls moving inland to make the most of prolific feeding opportunities, such as landfill sites and urban streets.” Experts say that by contrast, inland gull colonies have rocketed. This includes not just urban gull populations – but those living on or near moorlands. 

So what are the RSPB doing about this blatantly flawed decision by Natural England? This is clearly a situation in which they ought to be involved; poor understanding of science has led to a situation where gulls are left to attack and destroy the breeding population of endangered birds. The decision won’t have done gulls any favours, either, as public opinion will turn the birds into public-enemy number one, particularly in cities, where their numbers are soaring. 

The answer, of course, is very little. Instead, the RSPB are choosing to focus their resources on an uninhabited volcanic island in the South Atlantic named Gough Island. It’s one of the most remote islands in the world, lying 2,400 km north of South Georgia island, 2,700 km from Cape Town, and over 3,200 from the nearest part of South America. Never mind its remoteness; the RSPB have decided that it is here, rather than on the home turf of the UK, that they need to step in and organise predator control. Gough Island is an important seabird colony, but mice – likely introduced from boats in the 19th century – are attacking both adult birds and chicks. As the RSPB’s Martin Harper explains on his blog, they have therefore decided to embark on a £9.2 million eradication programme, involving the dropping poison from a helicopter in a bid to destroy the mouse population. 

The RSPB have form on this; RSPB Scotland, together with the SNH, are currently in the middle of a £7 million stoat eradication project on the island of Orkney. The project bought 16,000 traps, and trained specialist ‘Stoat sniffer dogs’ – but the project was hit by controversy last spring, amid claims that the traps used were illegal ones.  

But the strangest thing, in both of these cases, is that the RSPB is positively embracing predator control. In fact, not just control but complete eradication. They are perfectly happy to destroy entire populations of mice or stoats at vast cost – but conversely, encourage Wild Justice to promote their legal campaigns against general licences; court cases which are proving deadly for endangered species.

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