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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
The return of the seagulls
Seagulls
A pensioner has died after being attacked by seagulls in his garden. As the terror of overprotective gulls returns all round the UK, people are asking what can be done about them.

It's that time of year again when seagulls living in towns and cities can become very aggressive, with potentially dreadful consequences.

Seagulls
In the UK, the term usually means herring gulls
They can live until they are 40
It is illegal to kill them, or disturb their nests or eggs (except under licence)
The tragic news that Wilfred Roby, an 80-year-old retired ambulance driver from Anglesey, died on Wednesday from a heart attack after being attacked by gulls in his back garden will surprise no-one who has been the victim of such an attack.

Mr Roby's death is the most extreme case in recent times, although last year there were reports of a woman being nearly "scalped" by the birds. Several dogs and cats have been killed by seagulls - actually herring gulls - which become over-protective of their young who are now leaving the nests.

And there's not much that can be done about it.

Folkestone's East Cliff
Gulls are leaving traditional habitats
BBC News Online reader Emily Swift-Jones says her garden, in Brighton, has been made a no-go area for her boyfriend. The gulls which are nesting on the flat roof of an extension at the back of their house are content to let Emily into the garden, but have swooped down on her boyfriend and her dog.

"He says that the birds seem OK when you're looking at them from a distance, but that when they are swooping down on you, and the beak is about a foot away, it's a different matter. That's when you see Man Running Into House."

Another reader, John Shaw, from Liverpool, believes he was targeted for special attention by one gull in the city centre.

"Running down a street, wearing T-shirt and shorts, I was dive-bombed," he says. "Not content with one pass, it made a further two attacks. Worse was to come. On my return some 30 minutes later, the bird obviously recognised me, and made a further three swoops to scare me off. I can only presume that my different attire marked me out as different from the usual lunchtime pedestrians."

Nationwide

Similar tales come from Gwynedd, Dundee, Edinburgh, Bristol, Berwick, even central London where last year postal deliveries to one row of mews houses had to be suspended because the gulls ruled the roost.

So what can be done? The answer it seems is not much. It is against the law to kill seagulls or interfere with their nests, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Dustbin lorry
Food sources are plentiful, especially on bin days
If gulls pose a particular threat to health or safety, councils can conduct a cull - usually by shooting or poisoning. But few authorities take advantage of this right, as it tends to be an unpopular step.

Andy South, of the RSPB, expressed sympathy for Mr Roby and his family, and for anyone who was being attacked by gulls.

"Inevitably all the gulls are doing is protecting their own young, which is the same as any human would do. They are just being overprotective of their territory," he says.

Aggressive

In this period when birds can get aggressive, he says the best answer is for people to be patient.

"It's a relatively short-lived process, only about three to four weeks. What we would suggest is if people can be patient until the end of the breeding season, and once the young have flown the nest, then people should try to use preventative measures to stop them nesting in the same place, because otherwise they will do."

Those measures include putting down chicken wire to stop the birds from landing and thus preventing nesting.

But if you think the problem will just go away and the same won't happen next year, think again.

Chip shop
Seagulls can takeaway too
Gulls can live for 40 years, Andy South says, and start breeding when they are three. If they have nested successfully in one place, that is where they will try to nest again.

And in any case, the problem is getting worse. Urban seagulls are increasing at 7% a year.

"In seaside towns we have made their lives a bit easier. There have been changes to cliff-top habitats and gulls have spotted chimney pots as their next best bet.

"From there, they get good visibility, they are safe from other predators, and there are food sources around. In a sense you can't blame them."

Discarded take-aways are the infamous food source, but in places such as Brighton where the rubbish is still collected in black plastic bags, seagulls think of dustbin day as an excuse for a feast, pecking bags open and leaving waste strewn over the road.

For reasons that no-one quite knows, the population of herring gulls, which are such an integral part of the seaside sights and sounds, has dropped by 40% in the past 40 years.


Tell us about your experiences, using the form below.

Your comments

As a resident of Gibraltar, which has a huge colony of Yellow-legged Gulls (closely related to the Herring Gull) I can suggest the follwing defensive measure. If dive-bombed, raise an arm (or if available a broom or stick) above your head. The gull will usually aim off the highest point to avoid collision and thus ensure it misses you. I speak from experience having been involved in ringing gull chicks.
Albert Yome, Gibraltar

Living in a town on the western coast of northern England, I believe that seagulls are just plain hungry. I can remember when most of the small towns dotted down the Solway Coast had fishing fleets and smaller fishing boats in every harbour, the gulls obviously had a feast and didn't infringe so much upon the rest of the town. They do now, and they do come into my garden looking for food.
Jennifer Walker, UK

By suggesting that people be patient, it is quite clear that the bird loving Mr South has never sufferred the nuisance caused by "herring gulls" in our inner cities...The gulls are vermin and should be destroyed. Would we be having this debate had a dog killed a pensioner or a rat bitten a young child? No.
Jonathan Heaney, London

I rarely read anything more pathetic than this article. These are birds for goodness sake! Anyone scared of a herring gull needs to wonder whether they're suitable to even dress themselves without help. Get a grip on yourselves people!
Jodie Coe, UK

In Bath we have a terrible problem with seagulls, but the council won't do anything about it. As well as being woken at 5am every morning by gulls nesting on our roof, we dare not put our bin bags out until the morning they are collected for fear of their contents being strewn all over the pavement and road by the rats of the sky!
Matt, England

Jodie Cole has obviously never experienced a herring gull at close quarters. These are large birds with a 4'6" wingspan, a fearsome hooked beak and an aggressive nature. Anyone scared of a herring gull is displaying a natural reaction!
Peter Green, England

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See also:

05 Jul 02 | Wales
20 Jun 02 | England
27 Jul 01 | UK
15 Apr 02 | Scotland
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