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Seagulls (Coastal Towns)

Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2011

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am pleased to have secured the debate, which gives me the opportunity to raise an issue that in recent years has affected the lives of many residents in my Waveney constituency, in particular in Lowestoft, as well as around the country, in coastal towns and further inland. In Waveney, there has been a problem in Beccles, some 10 miles from the coast, while problems have also arisen in such places as Bath and Birmingham.

Seagulls are part of the fabric of seaside Britain. Historically, other than following the plough, they have kept themselves to the coast. However, in recent years they have moved inland, nesting, feeding and breeding in buildings and on roofs, and in doing so causing considerable nuisance, stress and anxiety to nearby residents. In Lowestoft, much of the current problem centres around Waveney drive and the adjoining streets, and residents have been disrupted in a variety of ways.

Gulls are powerful birds, with a wing span of almost 5 feet, and they have messy habits. They have been known to tear apart refuse sacks and scatter the contents of litter bins in their search for food, making a mess and distributing litter, which has the potential to attract other, more conventional vermin.

Is my hon. Friend also aware that gull faeces cause a risk to the quality of bathing water in towns such as Teignmouth in my constituency? The Environment Agency is having to look at ways of preventing the birds from nesting on roofs and by the pier.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s drawing that fact to my attention, as it illustrates the number of environmental issues that arise. Seagulls are indiscriminate defecators, with the ability to expel significant quantities of runny faeces on the wing. The consequences are most unpleasant for residents in their gardens and for anyone else out and about in the open. Householders cannot hang out their washing, and windows, cars and garden furniture are continually fouled and have to be cleaned. One household I know has stopped holding their annual family barbecue. Relaxing in the garden is no longer possible, while soiled clothes, sheets and towels have to be thrown away. There is an additional burden on local authorities’ cleaning duties. Noise nuisance is also a factor. Gulls have a distinctive, prolonged, piercing and very loud laughing call. For many people, a good night’s sleep is a thing of the past.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue. He has mentioned some places in England, but even Cardiff in Wales has a massive problem. Because of the noise factor mentioned by my hon. Friend, my constituent, Mr Paul Harvey, has started a campaign in Wales on the issue, but the council tells us that national legislation is needed and that there is none that can be used at the moment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I will be coming to that subject. He is correct; at the moment, nuisance as such is not something that enables one to take appropriate measures. It might be appropriate to change the law, and I will come to that point.

As I said, gulls make a distinctive, piercing sound, and in certain areas, people find that they can no longer keep their windows open on warm summer nights. During the breeding season, nesting birds have a tendency to dive-bomb people they perceive as a threat to their nests or offspring. That can be extremely alarming for the elderly and the young. In one incident, riggers putting up a TV aerial were attacked and had to return on another date to complete their work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on raising an issue that has stretched many miles from the sea all the way up the Gloucester and Sharpness canal to the historic city of Gloucester, where seagulls are as much a pest as they are in his constituency. Does he agree that the only way to solve the problem of those birds almost of mass destruction is, on the one hand, for those of us who have tips to close them as fast as possible so that the gulls do not have access to a great food source and, on the other hand—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans)—that the Government need to consider whether they should authorise more action by councils to co-ordinate the clearing of gull nests?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point; I am aware that the problem is acute in Gloucester. We need to look at a variety of measures and I will certainly raise the two points he mentioned.

People are no longer able to enjoy their homes; there is an added health risk and a negative knock-on effect on the saleability and value of houses. Why and how has the problem arisen? It appears that the situation has become significantly worse in the last five to six years. Residents who have lived in their homes for 32 and 52 years respectively have told me that until recent years there was not a significant problem.

There is a need for research to accurately establish the causes, although anecdotally and based on feedback I have received from around the country, I suggest there could be a variety of reasons. First, the decline of the fishing industry that has taken place in Lowestoft and around the British coast may have removed more traditional food sources, thereby forcing gulls to move inland in search of other forms of sustenance. Secondly, the availability of discarded fast food and overflowing waste may encourage birds to move into new areas. On the seafront in Lowestoft, feeding the seagulls may seem like a good idea, but one household now has them breeding on its roof and dive-bombing householders as they leave home. Thirdly, it is possible that the encroachment of traditional natural breeding habitats may have forced seagulls to look for alternative nesting-places. Indeed, off Waveney Drive, the presence of a now empty timber processing factory, with many thousands of square feet of roof, has provided an ideal breeding-ground.

My hon. Friend makes powerful points about fisheries and so forth. In Brighton and Hove, we quite like seagulls. Indeed, their image adorns our wonderful new stadium. In relation to points made earlier about bins and destruction, we have changed some of the collection methods so that there is less destruction and less mess. In large numbers gulls can cause distress, but does my hon. Friend agree that a change in our behaviour can often alleviate the problem, and that is better than simply removing the seagulls?

I agree with that point, too. We have to look at ourselves as people as well as considering other forms of control.

In looking for solutions, there is no easy answer and no silver bullet. There is a need for more research so that we can obtain a better understanding of the ecology, biology and migrating habits of herring and black-headed gulls. We need a range of preventive measures. Where the problem is acute, there may be a need to consider additional means of controlling the gull population. I would be interested to know if any research has been carried out to find out what happens in other countries. Gull colonies can be very mobile. They move over a wide area stretching from the Atlantic coast in Portugal to Scandinavia and across to Siberia. By all accounts, the problem is not as acute in Norway and Sweden. We need to know why this is the case.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The menace also afflicts the people of Barrow and Furness up in Cumbria. On preventive measures, has the hon. Gentleman given serious consideration to whether gull contraceptives could be an effective way of limiting the burgeoning population in urban areas?

If the hon. Gentleman means by gull contraception something that deals with the eggs, I have considered that. If he has other proposals, it would be interesting to hear further details.

A variety of preventive measures is necessary, including regular litter-picking and road cleaning, the provision of gull-proof bins that are emptied regularly and discouraging the feeding of gulls—in some towns fines are being imposed. There is also a need, as we heard earlier, to reduce the amount of food waste and organic matter that goes to landfill sites. Commercial buildings that may be suitable for nesting and roosting should be proofed. When sites are redeveloped, preventive measures should be incorporated in redevelopment plans.

The wholesale culling of gulls is not an option and I do not advocate it. Quite apart from the logistics and questionable ethics, the European population of herring gulls is very mobile, and minor gains achieved by removing a local population will invariably be cancelled out by natural migration.

My hon. Friend has done well to secure this debate and he is making an excellent speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) is right to point out that it is not about wide-scale culling of gulls, but about individual responsibility when people discard their rubbish. In spite of that, particularly in seaside towns such as Lowestoft, Brighton and Hove, which have active night-time economies, people will still discard their rubbish in antisocial ways. No matter how much we like or dislike it, there is an onus on councils to address that problem and ensure that rubbish and litter are collected in a timely manner to avoid the problems we are talking about.

I thank my hon. Friend for those observations. I agree that that is one of the ways forward that we should consider.

To address the very worst problems, where people’s lives are being made a misery, consideration should be given to changing the existing licensing controls in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to allow owners of large sites where significant numbers of birds are causing, or are likely to cause, a legal nuisance, to apply for a licence to take measures to prevent or deter the colonisation of land in their occupational control. At present, someone cannot apply for a licence to deal with a nuisance. They can apply for a licence to prevent serious damage to agriculture, to preserve public health or air safety and to conserve other birds. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether adding nuisance to that list is something that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has considered or will consider.

Consideration also needs to be given to legislation allowing local authorities to require land owners to take preventive or remedial action to deal with actual or likely noise, smell or other nuisance caused by gulls colonising land or structures in urban areas. The problem is not easy to solve. Indeed, there might be a temptation to put it to one side in the “too difficult” category, but that would be wrong. As we have heard, many thousands of people from all around the country are being affected, and we owe it to them to come up with a range of measures to make their lives more tolerable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the natural environment and fisheries. He would normally reply to this debate, but he is otherwise engaged. I am happy to stand in for him, especially as I was born and brought up in a seaside town lower down the Suffolk coast than Lowestoft, so I am familiar with the raucous cries of gulls.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) because gulls are a major feature of seaside towns. As always, it is an issue of balance and getting the populations right. I recognise that high densities in urban or coastal areas can cause serious problems for the people who live and work there. Sensible and proportionate measures need to be taken to mitigate those problems.. A range of measures are already available, including, where necessary, lethal control and the destruction of nests and eggs. Those measures are regularly employed across the country to manage our urban gulls.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned the problems in Beccles. I understand that those problems were managed at least in part by the removal of nests and by deterring the gulls, and that Natural England has worked with local residents to find ways of managing the gulls that have caused problems.

Before we consider management, we must look at the conservation status of gulls. They are wild birds to which we offer protection, and our obligation under the EU birds directive to conserve the wild bird population is fulfilled in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

UK breeding populations of herring gulls have declined by 72% since 1969, and winter populations by about 50% over the past 25 years. As a result, the herring gull is now a biodiversity action plan priority species, and has been red-listed as a bird of conservation concern—the answer to my hon. Friend’s point about nuisance can probably be found in those statistics. Other gull species, including the great black-backed gull and—perhaps more importantly—the lesser black-backed gull, have also seen a decline in population, and although we sometimes see large numbers of gulls in certain areas, we may be forgiven for not realising that their conservation status may be under threat nationally. Although the population of some gull species has risen in urban areas, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of gulls found in their natural habitat.

I recognise the genuine concerns of my hon. Friend and other colleagues about gulls in their constituencies. Although the Wildlife and Countryside Act provides protection for all birds, it allows people to apply to Natural England for a licence to control problem bird species if there are no other satisfactory solutions—he saved me from having to read out the list of reasons that people can use to apply for such a licence. That licence would be granted on an individual basis, but some issues are covered under a general licence provided by Natural England that is available to anybody in the country and for which one does not need to apply—in theory, people are supposed to download information from the internet, but in reality culling is allowed under certain circumstances on the basis of the problems described by my hon. Friend. If someone believes that that general licence has been used for a different reason, the onus is on them to prosecute the case. That has happened in the past because these matters are not always easy; for example, if someone acts simply because they do not like gulls, they will clearly be breaching the terms of the general licence and be open to prosecution.

The general licence allows for the lethal control of the lesser black-backed gull where there is need to preserve public health and safety, or to prevent serious damage or the spread of disease. Many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend fall under those headings. Herring gulls have a more threatened status, but under the same general licences it is possible for an authorised person to remove and destroy their nests and eggs— I understand that that was one measure taken in Beccles. Licensed controls will therefore be necessary in some circumstances and, particularly in the breeding season, the removal of eggs and their replacement with dummy eggs—obviously under licence—can reduce the urban gull population if done for a long period. In the short term, such actions also reduce the likelihood of attacks from gulls.

Although licensed controls exist, they should not automatically be the first port of call and we should look at other measures to manage problems such as those to which my hon. Friend referred. There is no doubt that food supply is a major factor because gulls tend to increase in number and cause problems when there is a readily available source of food, especially if that combines with suitable habitats such as timber sheds.

The licensed control of gulls can prove effective in the short term, but we must look at the issue more widely. Access to food is the single most important factor controlling the gull population, and if food is denied they will go elsewhere and the problem may be resolved without recourse to other measures. It is a matter for individuals and local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to address the problem by using gull-proof methods of waste disposal such as rubbish sacks or—probably better—bins, and by reducing access to local landfill sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) suggested closing tips, but that would simply shuffle the problem elsewhere. Although the Government eventually intend to phase out landfill sites altogether, proven methods of deterring gulls without having to close a site and inconvenience constituents include the use of fireworks, visual deterrents, netting in some circumstances, and birds of prey. There is no single solution, but some methods have been proven to work.

Local authorities—indeed, all of us—should try to avoid spilling foodstuffs or leaving material around, keep food storage areas secure and bird-proof and ensure that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy. They should also try to stop people feeding the birds. The use of deterrents on our buildings is familiar to all of us in the Chamber because we live surrounded by them. In London the problem is pigeons, but proofing buildings with netting, metal spikes and so on could also be a way to address the problems caused by gulls. The fundamental answer to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, and many others, is that eliminating those things that attract gulls will reduce the problem. In other words, we should get rid of their feed and prevent them from using the facilities and buildings that they see as a habitat or nesting area.

In September, the Minister with responsibility for the natural environment met my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who has taken a great interest in this subject, and they discussed the merits of further research into the behaviour and ecology of urban gulls. Research, both completed and ongoing, has been carried out into managing urban gulls, and the Food and Environment Research Agency has investigated the movements of urban gulls, focusing on their movements between urban centres and landfill sites. It has also undertaken work funded by the Landfill Communities Fund to develop practical guidelines about deterring gulls from landfill sites. Those guidelines are in use by the Environment Agency. Studies funded by airport interests and water utility companies have examined methods to deter gulls from roosting in those areas, and such methods have been properly applied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney referred to reservoirs. That is a crucial issue, but one to which all measures that I have referred to can be applied. In addition, I am advised that hand-held laser torches— I think it says laser, although it could be taser; I am reading my notes out because I have difficulty believing this—have been used at reservoirs with some success. I will leave my hon. Friend to work out exactly how.

A PhD study is examining the use of egg control to limit local breeding production in gulls. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who referred to contraception, is not in his place, but hon. Members will be aware of the idea of using contraception to constrain populations of all sorts of wild species. In some places, that is used; in others, it is being researched. I do not know of any research relating to gulls, but clearly it is an interesting point and perhaps we should consider it. That said, I assume that the only way to administer the contraception would be in feed and we do not really want to feed the birds—that would be a double-edged sword.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney understands that there is a range of existing tools that can be used to manage gulls. Where there are issues of public health and safety, methods such as the removal of nests or eggs or of the gulls themselves—the lethal control of gulls—may be relevant.

At the meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath, the Minister undertook to consider whether there was merit in taking forward more research on urban gulls, and we are examining that now. We can consider further research to help us to develop a greater understanding of urban gull behaviour, but we want to ensure that any such work delivers practical solutions.

In the meantime, I repeat that it is, as several hon. Members have said, for us as individuals and particularly for local authorities to use the quite considerable range of tools available at the moment to tackle the conflicts to which my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney so eloquently referred. He has used the opportunity afforded by Westminster Hall to raise genuine local concerns. Clearly, the problem cannot be dealt with in a few days. It requires concerted action by the community and by local authorities, working together over a sustained period, to take away all the things that attracted the birds in the first place. That is the bottom line, and we need to make concerted efforts to do it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue and, quite properly, raising constituency concerns, and for allowing me to give the Government’s opinion. We have heard from other hon. Members, so clearly the issue is not unique to Lowestoft. I think that all of us have in some way witnessed the problems. I hope very much that what I have said is helpful to him and to his constituents and that sooner or later they will be able to sleep at night.

Congratulations to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), to the Minister and to all the other hon. Members who have participated in what has been a most informative debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.