Robert Gore-Langton

The scourge of Britain’s seagulls

The scourge of Britain's seagulls
Image: iStock
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What’s happened to seagulls? They used to be rather charming. The plaintive cawing of gulls used to be the nostalgic soundtrack to any seaside holiday. In the banal, best-selling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the eponymous bird flies for the spiritual joy of it and learns great truth and wisdom. The one thing it doesn’t do is nick your chips.

How times have changed. Today, if you go to a harbour town in Cornwall, say, and buy an edible treat, there’s an even chance you’ll see out of the corner of your eye a white flash and — whoosh! — the top half of your pasty has gone. 'Bastard!' you shout vainly at the culprit. The other gulls all yak with mocking laughter. Local news outlets are full of gull attack stories in the summer months. You can find online a herring gull that was dyed completely orange; it had broken into a curry house kitchen and fallen into a vat of tikka masala sauce.

Everyone is sick of gulls. The birds have taken over town centres, not just the coast. In Bath, for example, you can’t hear yourself think for their racket. If they nest near you, and have chicks to defend, the adults can be just as vicious as skuas or terns. In Barrow-in-Furness a pensioner couldn’t get into his own house because of a nest of chicks on his porch roof. Whenever he tried to get to the key in the latch, the parent birds made holes in his bald head. They literally trepanned him. When a gull allegedly killed a Chihuahua called Gismo (you need a heart of stone not to laugh) concerned Cornwall semi-resident David Cameron said we need a 'national conversation'. But what is there to discuss? The birds are protected and they aren't going to leave, even if asked nicely.

Coastal constituency MPs occasionally call for action. The gull plop on windscreens annoys voters about as much as the noise and the mugging. But experts say egg-crushing and contraceptive chemicals are futile. The UK’s colonies of breeding pairs are healthy enough to rapidly fill any gull-free vacuum a town council might temporarily achieve. Besides, the truth is that the gulls aren’t the problem — we are. We’ve emptied the seas of fish but our streets are heaving with seafood: haddock and chips, prawn baguettes, crab sticks, scampi, plus chips, pizzas, wraps, rolls and ice creams. All of it, from a bird’s point of view, delicious, easy prey. Why, if you were a gull, would you sit on the ocean or a landfill site when you can just stroll downtown? A chunk of soggy batter from an overflowing litter bin probably has more fat in it than a fresh herring.

St Ives in Cornwall — a guano-splattered hellhole in summer — has produced some guidance for tourists. Don’t feed the gulls. Eat with your back to a wall or in narrow streets where the flight path is restricted. Gulls thrive because they are bold, unfussy and of course class-blind. The north Norfolk coast is well-known for its summer population of garish, honking QCs. They are just as likely to have their camembert and walnut pesto paninis raided as any family with a bucket of fried chicken in Blackpool.

As with gulls, it’s much the same story with red kites. Their recent re-introduction in Oxfordshire has been such a success they have now colonised most of the M4 corridor. They are splendid carrion birds, meant to eat dead things, but their behaviour has changed; they are now swooping on pet guinea pigs, tortoises, picnics, litter bins, bird tables etc. You can see them circling like vultures over Didcot station, waiting for delayed GWR passengers to die.

Some scientists think the high carb, sugary diet has altered birds’ brains. They crave a rush of sugar in their blood. It’s hard to know what is going on. Are gulls really just feeding themselves as best they can or have they got revenge in mind? In the famous Hitchcock horror film The Birds, set in a tiny Californian harbour town, the flocking avians are full of brooding malevolence that explodes into all-out war on humans. In a famous scene, Tippi Hedren is stuck in a phone booth with the glass being smashed in by dive-bombing gulls. It’s the end of the world, says the town drunk. The film now feels prophetic. We have utterly desecrated this world and the birds know it. Is it possible the gulls are hungry for us? Today our cornettos, tomorrow our eyeballs.