Thousands of city dwellers have to live with the noise and mess of urban gull breeding colonies. Often dubbed ‘flying rats’ because they gorge on garbage, gulls are protected by Natural England — a public body sponsored by the government — on the grounds that they are supposedly endangered. Anyone who has to put up with their dawn-shattering racket and profuse defecation can only wonder at the truth of this; and the fact is that it’s based on seriously flawed science.
The wildly held belief (which also appears on the Natural England website) that the UK’s herring gull population has declined by 60 per cent is untrue. Yet their protected status has been enshrined in law to stop councils from dealing with a gull problem that in many of our cities causes distress to residents and damages urban environments. Far from decreasing, urban gull populations are rapidly increasing to the frustration of their human neighbours.
Despite this, councils across the land have dutifully fallen into line with Natural England’s demands, abandoning many of their urban gull control measures, including egg oiling and nest removals. So where did the idea of a 60 per cent decline come from?
Earlier this year, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee — the public body that advises on UK conservations — published an updated text from Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland by Brian Madden and Stephen F. Newton. Originally published in 2004, this was an appraisal of Seabird 2000, a major census of all British and Irish seabirds. The study reveals that the myth of the 60 per cent decline is based on three censuses: Operation Seafarer (1969-70), which recorded 285,929 herring gulls; the Seabird Colony Register (1985-88), which recorded 149,197 — a fall of 48 per cent; and Seabird 2000 (1998-2002) which recorded 130,230 — a further fall of 13 per cent.