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Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 11:45 UK

The awk, awk, awk-ward squad


Loud, dirty and destructive, urban gulls would never win prizes for popularity. But now numbers are getting "out of hand" says one expert and many gulls are choosing to sit out the mild British winter rather than head for warmer climes, writes Maggie Ayre.

For many people what used to be a soothing sound reminiscent of trips to the seaside - the plaintive cry of the seagull - is now a jarring screech that disturbs life in towns and cities across the UK.

For three decades now, lesser black backed gulls and herring gulls have been abandoning the harshness of windy coastal cliffs for the safety and comfort of the urban high-rise.

Cities such as Bath, Bristol, Gloucester and Aberdeen have seen populations of nesting birds double in five years. Such is the rate of growth of some colonies that the Scottish Parliament and many local authorities now believe we have a national problem on our hands.

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What worries councils across the country is that gulls are breeding so successfully in our towns and cities, that current control measures are having little effect. Urban gulls produce three times as many chicks as their coastal cousins and return to the same nesting spot each year.

If 50 gulls lay their eggs on a factory roof one year, that's 150 coming back the next. The mess they cause to buildings and cars by splattered guano means considerable cleaning costs and there are health concerns over the pathogens it contains; they also tear up roofing material such as felt and asbestos, as well as rip open rubbish bags.

Gulls are inquisitive, intelligent birds and are becoming ever more daring as they forage for food. Every summer reports of "asbo" gulls attacking members of the public to steal food or to protect their nesting territory abound. Businesses and local authorities are increasingly having to call in the professionals to deal with aggressive gulls.

The bell sounded and it was like a scene from a Hitchcock film
Graham Rees

Companies such as NBC Bird Pest Solutions are being called on to get rid of gull colonies. Among the most worrying cases it has attended was that of a school right in the middle of Wolverhampton, says NBC's Graham Rees.

"I got there 10 minutes before lunchtime. There wasn't a seagull to be seen. The bell sounded and it was like a scene from a Hitchcock film. They came from everywhere and there must have been about 200 seagulls sitting on the roof, waiting for the children to come out with their sandwiches and snacks, and as soon the kids were out, they were dive-bombing the kids and taking food out of their hands."

This summer a hospital in Gloucester resorted to killing chicks nesting on the roof out of fears for the health and safety of staff and patients. But while some licensed culling of gulls is allowed, as the hospital discovered, it's often not a popular option with the public. Visitors and patients were reportedly distressed at seeing the chicks being destroyed.

KFC diet

Now the numbers are getting out of hand, says gull expert Peter Rock, who has been monitoring their urban numbers for 30 years. Control measures such as nets, spikes, dummy eggs and birds of prey may help temporarily, but are not permanent deterrents. Once gulls nest on a building, it is very hard to get rid of them.

Herring Gull
Herring gull, Larus argentatus (above), is omnivorous, about 57cm long when grown, have pink legs and a yellow bill marked with a red spot on the lower jaw. Life-span: up to 30 years or more
Lesser black-backed gull, Larus fuscus, is similar in size to a herring gull or slightly smaller
Sources: Macmillan Encyclopedia, RSPB

A rooftop colony in Bristol exceeds 2,000 breeding pairs and a glance at the food waste around the roof tells its own story

"Look at all those chicken bones down there," says Mr Rock. "You'd think the staple diet of gulls is chicken, and in particular KFC."

On weekend nights, many people throw their takeaway food on the ground and with the help of street lighting, the gulls take full advantage.

The throwaway culture has created perfect living conditions in towns and cities for gulls. Life on a cold, windy coastal cliff-top - where there are more predators and not so many fish to scavenge from fishing boats - is not as appealing as the fast food on offer from landfill sites and city streets.

But while we may have encouraged gulls to colonise urban cliffs, there are growing signs that climate change also plays a part. Mr Rock's research shows urban gulls are increasingly dispensing with winter migration that usually begins at this time of year. They are adapting their behaviour.

Bad press

"The adults have decided that going to Portugal and eating sardines then spending the rest of the day loafing about in the sunshine on the beach is no fun anymore, and they'd rather stay here."

A warmer climate in cities means those that do migrate are returning and breeding earlier in the year, which makes them even more successful.

Seagulls eating
Fewer seagulls now hunt on the beach

But while problems mount in how to control multiplying gulls in towns and cities, coastal gulls have declined drastically. The RSPB wants the herring gull to be put on its Red List of endangered species. This would mean that local authorities would be required to draw up a "Biodiversity Action Plan" to protect gulls.

The RSPB's Graham Madge says gulls get a bad press and that it's up to us as a society to reduce the waste lying around our streets. This, he says, would discourage gulls from breeding inland and drive them back to the sea.

"Herring gulls need the services of a good PR expert. They're not the country's most favoured birds. What we've got is a situation that means we've got them in the wrong place at the moment.

"Yes, in some cases they can cause a nuisance, but what we need to take are measures that encourage the removal of these birds naturally and back to their cliff-top homes where they belong."

Some are sceptical that the gulls could ever be persuaded to abandon the comfort of the city for the coast.

Mr Rock says they're a feature of 21st Century life that we will have to learn to live with, but warns that the UK could have up to a million breeding pairs in Britain in 10 years time.

The implications for tourism and businesses in towns and cities having to deal with their noise, mess and aggression are not to be underestimated.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Absolutely! Something should be done, we wake up most night because of them quarkin away in the middle of the night, they're so vicious and make an absolute mess of the whole area, replace them with robins and what a lovely place we'd have!
Kevin, Cardiff

Of course they should be culled. The flying rats are a menace in our cities. I'm a bird-watcher and a lover of nature but lets be sensible about this. Unless the all sources of easy food can be removed permanently then the only way they will get scared away is if they are predated on. Instinct will identify towns as danger areas and they will eventually leave for the protected areas of the sea cliffs where they belong.
Stu, Swansea

Herring gulls are incredibly beautiful creatures. Whilst I do agree that they can be a hazard, it is not fair to blame them for taking advantage of the circumstances that we have created. It is our fault for making such an attractive environment for them to live in. They are simply doing what any creature does, finding the easiest way to survive.
Sarah, Wales

I fully agree - they are complete pests. I too am worried at the health aspect also, especially with them pulling up asbestos roofs. They are also bad for local businesses: I am a budding entrepreneur, a businessman if you will, but potential clients visiting my offices have rejected lucrative deals simply because they have been distracted by loud 'SQUARKS' and the sight of a seagull on the windowsill, when just about to sign the dotted line. It sounds trivial but it is a fact.
Neil Renwick, Cambridge

Yes, seagulls should be culled in UK cities; they are pests and a health hazard. Also, pigeons should be culled and people prevented from feeding them on the same grounds.
Michele Paton, Norwich UK

I get a little irritated when I see folk complaining about urban wildlife - not just seagulls, but foxes, badgers, and other critters. We are creating a habitat for them, they use it because our detritus gives them a better life than foraging in their natural habitats. If you don't like them, clean up your act. Others migrate in because their natural habitats have been destroyed by man, and they're just trying to survive. I love having them round, although I'd like seagulls to be a bit quieter sometimes.
Eddie, Edinburgh

Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine!!!
Hotstuff, London

Its about time mankind realised that it does not have the right to simply slaughter any being which it decides it doesn't like. I'm sick of mankind playing god. There are elements of the human race which are much more trouble than a few seagulls.
Steve, York

So people feed the gulls, the gulls take advantage of it, and the gulls get the blame. How typical.

I was out in Llandudno for the day and a sea gull swooped down, hit me on the head and flew off with the remains of my ice cream. They don't need a PR expert, they need an extermination expert to rid us of this filthy and violent creature.
Richard Hamilton, Wrexham, North Wales

It's all very well for the RSPB to say that gulls get a bad press and that we should be sympathetic, but they are a nuisance! They have become more aggressive since wheelie bins have prevented them from getting easy access to waste. It is dangerous eating outside in Aberdeen - they will swoop down and take the food right out of your hand as it's on its way to your mouth. I'm sure the ones in Aberdeen are mutants - they seem much bigger than gulls anywhere else.
Fiona Musk, Aberdeen

Cardiff has a major problem with seagulls - more so than with pigeons. The seagulls rip open bin bags left out for collection, and take wrappers out of the litter bins. The council ought to have a cull of the seagulls.
Amanda, Cardiff


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