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Controlling Urban Seagulls

Volume 491: debated on Thursday 23 April 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Mole.)

Given the current financial crisis, using even a small amount of parliamentary time to debate the problems caused by urban seagulls might seem bizarre. However, while we rightly devote much of our time to the financial crisis, we should not lose sight of other issues, especially ones that cause significant problems to many people and cost individuals, businesses and local councils a great deal of money.

I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue. I pass on huge thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who is not in the Chamber because, as he has explained to me, he is on important departmental business. I am, however, delighted to see on the Treasury Bench the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who I am sure will be a worthy substitute.

I have received numerous complaints in my Bath constituency about urban seagulls. Mr. Henry Brown, chairman of Bath Residents Associations, wrote to me recently about the serious health and safety problems caused by seagulls in Bath. He referred to faeces deposited on tables, chairs and other furniture outside catering premises creating a health hazard; stone pavements and steps rendered slippery by freshly deposited faeces creating safety hazards; aggression towards pedestrians in public spaces and gardens, which is extremely frightening; and the pecking open of refuse sacks, which leaves debris and encourages other vermin, creating further health problems.

A search through local newspapers across the country shows that Bath is not alone. For example, in August last year, the Daily Mirror reported:

“A terrified woman in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire was left drenched in blood after a seagull protecting its young dive-bombed her. Jean Wemyss, 68, had to have a one-inch gash in her head glued after the attack. ‘It felt like someone had hit me with a rock. There wasn’t a stitch that wasn't covered in blood.’”

Such results from a bird attack might seem exaggerated, but with a wingspan of four and a half feet, an adult body weight of about 2 lb, a long, vicious beak, a flight speed of 40 mph and sharp claws that are swift to draw blood in an attack, each bird represents an impressive threat as it hurtles through the sky.

The newspapers have hundreds of similar stories—from attacks on people carrying food to birds swooping on bike riders, causing accidents. The headlines illustrate the problem: “Raging Gull”, “Pensioner’s Horror At Gull Attack”, “Hitchcock’s Vision Rapidly Becoming Terrifying Reality” and “Vicar Has To Wear Hard Hat To Church After Seagull Attack”.

As well as the birds attacking people, urban communities increasingly have to deal with their ear-splitting noise, the mess gulls’ excrement makes on rooftops, pavements, cars and windows and the damage they do to buildings—even pulling away lead flashings. It is no wonder that in January the Daily Mail ran a story with the rather lengthy headline, “They’re noisy, filthy, violent…and they’re moving into a street near you. No, not marauding teenagers, but the seagulls invading Britain’s inland towns by their thousands.”

Before world war two there were no urban seagulls, but the growth of urban landfill sites offered a whole new source of food, especially after the Clean Air Act 1956 put a stop to landfill operators burning rubbish on site. With so much edible waste going into landfill, the large gulls were quick to take advantage. Plenty of food meant plenty of offspring, and previously small, wild populations grew rapidly to the tipping point where their colonies were overgrown. The overspill came to our towns, which have fewer predators and little disturbance. Towns are 4 to 6° C warmer than the surrounding countryside, and street lighting enables gulls to scavenge at night as well as during the day. Gull expert Peter Rock wrote to me, saying:

“Three years ago, I estimated that we had 130,000-180,000 pairs of gulls nesting on rooftops in the whole of Britain and Ireland. It’s quite clear that the growth of these urban colonies has been startlingly high. I estimate that by 2019”—

10 years’ time—

“we could have over a million gulls nesting on our rooftops. And by then urban gulls will outnumber wild gulls. Once settled in, gulls virtually never return to the wild. They are urbanised for life—a very long time, considering that the average seagull lives to 20 years, and the record is 35.”

In my constituency, our seagull colony has doubled in size in just six years, and we now have more than 850 breeding pairs. When non-breeders are added, it means that we already cope with 2,500 seagulls, and the numbers continue to increase rapidly. Other places are in an even worse position. With gull populations expanding rapidly, the problems, previously perceived as little more than an irritation and often with a great deal of mirth, have, instead, become very costly indeed. Repairs to damage, clearing up fouling and mess, nest clearance and so on are obvious areas of expense, but gull noise elicits the vast majority of complaints, affects tourism and the resource from it, causes sleep deprivation in the work force and distresses hospital patients. Attacks from aggressively protective parent birds deter shoppers, with obvious effects on local economies.

A plethora of pest control equipment and deterrence systems has been deployed during the past decade, involving very large sums of money. Looking across the roofs of any town where gulls breed, we see nets, strings, spikes, tensioned wires and even plastic models of owls and helium-filled balloons, and we hear loudspeakers broadcasting distress calls. Birds of prey are sometimes flown, as they are over this Palace, to try to deter nesting, but, despite those interventions, populations have grown rapidly. The gulls have taken everything thrown at them in their stride, and even more recently developed methods do not seem to be working.

Some councils are deploying the method that Peter Rock suggested some years ago, whereby eggs are coated in oil to prevent hatching. Bristol city council, for example, is spending £30,000 a year on certain measures. But, while egg oiling and, latterly, egg replacement can help calm sensitive areas, it does not seem to reduce populations. Rock now says:

“It’s just not effective enough; it may simply move the problem around.”

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the solutions that have been tried so far merely move the problem somewhere else. My local council spends thousands of pounds each year on such measures in Bath city centre, but it admits that

“it is noticeable that in the last few years there are more complaints coming from areas outside the city centre where there were previously no problems”.

In short, we seem no nearer to an effective solution than we were a decade ago.

The Government have a responsibility to ensure that appropriate research is conducted to help identify solutions. After all, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is spending £2 million on the urgent eradication of the ruddy duck. Should it not also research some effective means at least to ameliorate the seagull problem? We certainly know a great deal about the biology of gulls, but most of our knowledge comes from studies of wild colonies. We know which species of fish that they prefer, but that casts no light on the situation in our towns. We know almost nothing about what makes urban gulls so successful, so, if we are to manage this issue properly, we surely need to find out.

We also need to know about issues such as site fidelity, breeding success, foraging strategies, foraging distances, time-energy budgets, chick growth rates, dispensing with migration, survival rates and much more. Most of all, we need to know about how and where urban gulls get their food, what it is and what, in particular, they provide for their offspring. Knowing how and where urban gulls obtain food will enable appropriate and efficient control of food supplies.

Experts are ready and willing to do the work. I know that Bristol university, for example, can be ready to take on preliminary work this season and start fully in 2010. But despite the urgent need for research, at the beginning of this month the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) saying:

“My department has no plans to fund research into the urban gull population.”

I hope that, following this debate, the Department will rethink the issue.

Action is also needed on a number of other fronts. Even if research identifies new solutions, it is unclear how the law will allow them to be used. At present, action against seagulls is allowed via a general licence. This includes a licence that allows the taking and killing and the damaging or destroying of eggs and nests of certain seagull species for the purpose of preserving public health and safety; a general licence can also be issued in respect of ensuring aircraft safety.

At present, such a licence does not allow such activity in respect of nuisance, such as that caused by the noise of seagulls, or damage to property. Given that the vast majority of complaints about seagulls involve nuisance and damage to property, surely there is a case for reconsidering the conditions that surround the issuing of general licences so that those factors are also taken into account? Natural England is currently reviewing the general licence provisions and I hope that the Department will encourage it to take the point on board. The review is already also considering whether to have tighter restrictions on the issuing of general licences in respect of one type of gull—the herring gull.

However, were a distinction to be made between herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls in terms of what is allowed to be done to limit the numbers, all measures such as egg replacement would simply have to cease, because even experts cannot distinguish between the eggs of the two species. I was therefore pleased to read in a note that I received only today from Natural England that the organisation now appears to recognise that in urban areas

“the control of the Herring Gull population may be desirable”.

No final decisions have been made, but it seems that the proposal will be to continue the current general licence terms for urban areas. I hope that the Department will oppose any tightening of the restrictions.

In summary, urban seagull problems have to be resolved. We need research to help us identify effective control measures and greater clarity about the rules allowing such measures to be undertaken. We certainly do not need any moves that will make tackling the problem more difficult. The neighbourhood environment manager of my local council summed it up in an e-mail that she sent me today:

“In terms of help, I feel that local authorities have limited scope to act and are working on their own initiative, when really the problem is regional, even national. There needs to be national commissioned research on the problems created by urban gulls which can lead to actions that local authorities can take together in a co-ordinated way. There is a frustration that nationally the problem is not taken seriously enough. However, at a local level it is an issue that the public feel very strongly about.”

Too many people have lived for too long with the menace of the urban seagull. I hope that we can hear tonight what help the Government have to offer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing this debate and thank him for agreeing to go ahead with it even though the Government are able to field only a reserve team. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), to whom the hon. Gentleman says that he has spoken, sends his apologies for not being able to listen in person. He cannot be here because he is at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg.

The hon. Gentleman set out with characteristic vividness the problems caused by urban gulls. The Government recognise that gulls can be problematic when found in high density in urban areas, such as Bath. We also recognise that measures need to be taken to mitigate such problems. I was interested to hear his statistics and the fact that in Bath the breeding population is now estimated at between 800 and 900 pairs. However, the suggestion that there are between 130,000 to 180,000 pairs of urban gulls is unrealistic. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee estimates, which are based on the seabird colony register census in 2002, show that there are probably some 30,000 pairs of gulls in urban areas out of a total breeding population of 370,000.

The hon. Gentleman asked if more research could be done into the behaviour of urban gulls, but the scientific advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England is that it is not clear what further benefits new research into gull behaviour or movements would bring. Gull behaviour is influenced primarily by the need for food and for safe nesting and roosting sites, regardless of where they may be. Gulls will scavenge and exploit food supplies on the coast as much as inland. Research funding, especially in the present financial circumstances, must be targeted at problems where there are no, or insufficient, solutions, but that is not the case for gulls because a range of well-tested measures, some of which have been researched extensively, can be used to overcome the problems, including adult bird removal, oiling or pricking of eggs—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned—nest destruction and the proofing of buildings. He draws a comparison with the ruddy duck, but that case is different because the ruddy duck is threatening the extinction of white-headed ducks. Nevertheless, DEFRA has commissioned research into the use of immuno-contraceptives in a range of species, including birds. That research is still at an early stage, however, and we do not want to wait for further results before continuing with effective action now.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the legal status of gulls. As he knows, all wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. However, in some circumstances it is possible to apply for a licence from Natural England to take measures to control problem bird species where there are no other satisfactory solutions. There are several specific purposes, defined in law, for which Natural England may grant licences, including preventing the spread of disease, preserving air safety, the conservation of wild birds, and preserving public health and safety. As he noted, nuisance and damage to property are not legal purposes, but the Government’s view is that the problems he has raised fall fairly and squarely within the category of public health and safety.

A build-up of gull populations to problem levels is usually the result of the presence of readily accessible food and/or the availability of attractive habitats for roosting or breeding. While licensed control of bird populations can provide temporary relief, the elimination or reduction of those factors will provide the long-term solution. Access to readily available nutritious food is the single most important factor in boosting gull populations. If that can be denied, the problem may be resolved without recourse to other measures. The Government urge all local authorities and individuals to help address that problem by, first, avoiding the spillage of foodstuffs; secondly, keeping food storage areas secure and bird-proof; thirdly, ensuring that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy; and fourthly, limiting or preventing the deliberate feeding of birds by the public.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that local authorities in Devon and Cornwall have had good results by using hessian sacks for rubbish disposal to deter gulls from accessing food. The gulls find it more difficult to deal with hessian sacks than with plastic sacks. I understand that it is proposed to trial the use of hessian sacks in Bath as well, to reduce the availability of food to gulls. If there are lessons to be learned from that, we will look into new techniques that may be more successful than those that are being used at the moment.

The licensing authority, Natural England, sets conditions to ensure that the licences that it issues, including general licences, are appropriate and take account of the risk of the activities licensed and the conservation status of the species concerned. The hon. Gentleman understands that although great black-backed and herring gulls may cause problems locally, there are concerns about the conservation status of those species at national level. As a member state of the European Union, the UK has an obligation to conserve wild bird populations, and Natural England was absolutely right to take that into account in its consultation on general licences. I emphasise, however, that we are taking that action not simply because we have a legal obligation to do so but because we are concerned about the wild bird populations.

There has been a greater than 50 per cent. decline in the breeding population of the herring gull since 1969 and a greater than 50 per cent. decline in the wintering population in the past 25 years. As a result, the herring gull is now listed as a biodiversity action plan priority species and meets the qualifying criteria for a red listing as a bird of conservation concern. The great black-backed gull is a scarce breeding species in England, with a breeding population of only 1,500 pairs. The wintering population of the species has declined by between 25 and 50 per cent. in the past 25 years, so it will be moved from green to amber listing as a bird of conservation concern.

It was for those reasons that Natural England consulted on amendments to general licences. It proposed that the herring gull would be removed from almost all general licences, the exception being that it proposed to continue to allow the destruction of the nests and eggs of herring gulls for the purpose of preserving public health and safety. That proposal recognised the need to mitigate the problems that herring gulls can cause in urban situations and meet the need to provide a licensing regime that is not overly burdensome. For great black-backed gulls, a general licence will be available only for the purpose of preserving air safety.

I stress that although the consultation proposed a reduction in the available general licences, it will still be possible to apply for an individual licence to control those species where they are causing problems. That option is, of course, open to local authorities. Natural England’s proposals were aimed at striking the appropriate and proportionate balance between protecting species and mitigating negative impacts in areas where species may be over-abundant. None of the changes that Natural England is proposing will prevent cities such as Bath from continuing to deal effectively with their urban gull populations.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.