Are you covered?

No, you are not!

Gull Control in the East Lothian Council Area is a discretionary service. For a number of years now the service has been made available on demand only, but I am not sure anyone round our way knew that. One might have guessed given the “austerity cuts” and direct observation, if you ever go out in Dunbar between April-September it is Guano Central.

The lack of control raises important questions about the environmental, social/health and economic costs of ceasing treatment, particularly at a time of concern about avian virus vectors.

Originally published in May 2012; Amended: May 2020

If you are a regular on Dunbar High Street or planning to visit don’t forget the brolly! It is raining today, but at other times you are in for a different sort of shower. For the Herring Gulls (aka Larus argentatus) are back to regale us with their raucus call and much more. By April / May in most years the High Street, parked cars and windows are already getting decorated with multi-colored guano, birds seem to have a perpetual diarrhea. If you are lucky enough, you may get hit from on high by the foul smelling stuff.

If you live on and around the High Street, and there is a nest or more nearby, expect to have to wash your car, windows and patios/decks several times a week at least, or even daily if you’re on a flight path.

The Problem with Gulls

Fouling of windows and washing, noise from calling gulls (from about now until a peak in August, when the young fledge) and by their heavy footsteps (they actually sound like intruders); potential damage to property, picking at roofing materials, dislodging tiles; nests blocking gutters, parapets, valley gutters, or holding moisture against a building’s structure. Sometimes (rarely but not as uncommon as you would think as I have found out since I first wrote this) gulls swoop on people and pets and snatch their lunch.

Never approach a chick that has fallen from the nest as the adults will usually defend them, but will give you due warning. And if you have a nest on your chimney beware they don’t block the gas flue, as fumes must be able to vent properly.

Gulls are also carriers of various avian influenza viruses.

Don’t take the law into your own hands, they are a protected species.

Nesting starts late April laying early / mid May and the gestation period is 3 weeks. Chicks generally fledge in August and then take three or four years to reach maturity and breed. Herring gulls live for about 20 years and are very faithful to their nest sites.

Dunbar has a healthy number of breeding pairs, a colony of around 50 strong, apparently, nesting on flat sections of roofs and tall chimney stacks. They seem to prefer very exposed positions – with good visibility. But why urban areas? And why Dunbar? Often it is said there is an abundant food supply in urban areas in gardens, street litter and open bags/bins, but a more convincing explanation is the presence of safe nesting sites and a decline of food sources at sea (e.g. by-catch discards) and inland (e.g. open waste disposal).  I am told that the population in Dunbar is quite recent (not known to nest before the 1970s?). I am inclined to think that the measures to displace gulls from the Isle of May could have something to do with it (about the 1970s), along with changes in the management of landfill at the nearby site, now owned by Viridor. Arguably the increase in lighting in the town and harbour – 24/7 floodlighting – creates an ideal extension of feeding times too, which, a bit like our convenience economy is actually pretty inconvenient for shopkeepers, residents and visitors alike.

Despite the increases in urban areas (Dunbar is not unique), the total herring gull population is now at its lowest level since monitoring began in the late 60s, though some authorities, like John Coulson, disagree with the counting method. The overall decline is not well understood and different factors may be at play, which combined make a difference. Ground nesting gulls are more prone to predation than before, with active gamekeeping reduced in many areas. Botulism is another possible cause (landfill sites may be the source of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium), on top of decreases in the availability of food scavenged from landfill sites and reductions in discards from fisheries already mentioned.

The current number of urban nesting gulls in Scotland or the UK is not known exactly, but one study I read from the 80s calculated that 14% were now breeding in urban areas.

So what to do? Well the problem is not exactly easy. All birds in the UK have varying degrees of protection, and wait for this the Herring Gull is also on endangered species lists. It is Red listed in Birds of Conservation Concern 3 (2009 update) and a UK Biodiversity Action Plan – priority species.

Under licence it is permissible to regulate the Herring Gulls individually or at subpopulation level and many Local Authorities have an active programme of control.  More rarely it is possible to intervene to remove them (e.g. if the are endangering domestic animals and humans). Culling is non-invasive, usually performed by preventing eggs from reaching maturity.  This stops the Gulls from re-laying in the same year (hopefully) and if carried out twice in the season likely to be very effective. I don’t think 2 treatments have ever been applied in Dunbar and we don’t know much about the effectiveness of the treatments, as this is not disclosed publicly.

However, if treatment is missed, e.g. the weather doesn’t permit or your Council decides it no longer has a budget, we’ll notice immediately as the breeding activity and noise will be heightened from hatching to fledging. When the young start to fly they get vocal encouragement from the family group and this is very entertaining to witness. The big danger is some 3-4 years later, when the young are of breeding age.

East Lothian Council’s programme used to be carefully monitored and statistics were gathered and sent to Sottish Natural Heritage, from whom they received a control licence, but we don’t know more than this.

Now more than ever they need our support, the gulls to find suitable alternative nesting places and the local council to realise that the costs of inaction (borne by householders, visitors and shopkeepers) are actually greater than the small costs of regular annual control.

It is doubtful we will ever love Herring Gulls as much as we love our Kittiwakes (a much prettier gull, but equally noisy and messy bird), but we can all help to reduce their impact.

What would a seaside town be without its sea gulls?

What can we do?

  • keep gardens free of waste food and rubbish
  • do not litter – it can harm the birds too
  • never ever feed gulls
  • don’t fly tip – there are excellent recycling facilities
  • make sure green bins and food waste containers are secured and recycling bins covered
  • never put rubbish in black bin liners out overnight
  • never approach chicks or young, however distressed they may look (the RSPCA may be willing to act, but the RSPB won’t)
  • experiment with simple anti-nesting measures – e.g. conical wire cowls will remove valuable perching spots, but remember that Herring Gulls are smart, so spikes that may deter pigeons won’t stop them!
  • Grow trees (plant now and wait 10-40 years)! Gulls seem to enjoy clear lines of sight that are created by treeless urban settings

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