I beg to move,
That this House has considered seagulls in coastal towns and cities.
It is a delight to move the motion, especially under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to have not only a neighbouring MP in the Chair but another of my neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), acting as the Minister’s excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary. It is truly a team effort from Devon and parts of Cornwall. I thank the House of Commons authorities for granting me the debate.
I am pleased to have secured this timely debate on seagulls and coastal towns and cities, which gives me an opportunity to talk about an issue that has plagued many people not only in my inner-city constituency but throughout the UK. For context, my constituency houses the city centre, the Barbican and the Hoe, where Smeaton’s tower is situated. Thousands of tourists flock to our city every summer to see the historic place where the Mayflower ship set sail 400 years ago to found the American colonies. Indeed, in 2020 Plymouth will be at the centre of commemorations. American tourists do not need to come to Plymouth only to be plagued by sweeping and aggressive seagulls.
I am concerned that increasingly aggressive seagulls could put off more tourists from coming across the world and visiting Plymouth and other coastal towns and cities such as Looe. They are not content to just take to the skies over my city; there is even a Twitter account called @PlymSeagull. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has fought a long and hard campaign against nuisance seagulls, and Fiona Kerslake of Eco Environmental, based in my constituency. She gave me an excellent briefing note on the topic.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one of the most important elements is access to food? If seagulls are denied access to that, they will often go elsewhere. Therefore, the very holidaymakers he refers to have a role to play: they should be encouraged not to feed seagulls when they are on the coast. We should also encourage local businesses such as takeaways to have seagull-resistant forms of waste disposal.
I have a strange feeling that my right hon. Friend might have had sight of my speech. I will come on to that point. He makes a relevant and worthwhile case.
I would also like to praise Nigel Eadie, who owns the Original Pasty House in Plymouth, who first brought this issue to my attention in the last Parliament. Last night, as right hon. and hon. Members were walking through the Division Lobbies, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) informed me that while Brexit is an extremely important ongoing issue, he had been inundated with communications from constituents expressing their support for this debate and suggesting what action the Government should take. The debate is particularly timely as we approach the spring and therefore the breeding season. By May, eggs will be hatching and the gulls will become even more aggressive as they seek to protect their young. As we head into the summer, we could very well see gull wars on our high streets!
My office mate, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who is doing a brilliant job as PPS, told me the old saying that each seagull carries the soul of a fisherman who died at sea. As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary fisheries group, I have had a few messages from people asking whether the common fisheries policy has been slightly to blame for the rise in aggressive urban seagulls as we seem to have overfished our waters. However, I will leave the Minister to address that point if she wishes.
In the past 200 years, most species of gull have learned that they no longer need to migrate north or south. That is because the UK holds a variety of relatively mild climate conditions throughout each season and food is readily available from a wide selection of sources, as my right hon. Friend mentioned. Like all wild animals, seagulls have an ingrained will to survive. Much of that comes down to the fact that they are scavengers looking for food scraps wherever they can find them. Indeed, last year a group of psychology students at the University of the West of England launched a research project to study the psyche of the gull, focusing on the nesting of the birds, their feeding habits and how humans interact with them. When my hon. Friend the Minister sums up, I very much hope she will confirm that she has followed that research. When it is published, will her Department respond to it?
Over the weekend, it was widely publicised in the local and national press that the reason I applied for this debate was because my friend had a chip taken away from him by an overly aggressive seagull. We were campaigning in the Torbay mayoral election at the time. He put his fish and chips to one side and a gull swooped down and took them away. I am afraid he did not finish his lunch.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important matter here. Is he aware that not simply chips are at risk? A pensioner was hospitalised by a seagull in Barrow within the past two years. This is a real public safety risk for the people of our coastal towns.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Indeed, I will give some examples of where that has happened elsewhere. As I said, a very aggressive seagull came down on my friend’s fish and chips. Yes, that happened, but no, that is not the reason why I sought the debate. I did so because I have been contacted by a whole series of people. A number of constituents have contacted me regarding over-zealous and aggressive seagulls. This is not a vendetta; it is an opportunity to ensure that shoppers, residents and tourists feel safe when they are outdoors.
Even my local newspaper, the Plymouth Herald, ran a story last summer titled “Plymouth will belong to seagulls this summer—but this is how you can avoid them”. We see photos in the press of a pensioner with a large cut to her scalp. We read stories about a diving seagull killing a pet dog. Things have become so bad and so widely publicised that our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that he wanted a “big conversation” about murderous seagulls.
Earlier today, I received an email from my constituent, Graham Steen, who tells me that a few years ago he was attacked by a pair of gulls that were nesting in his chimney. The gulls used their claws and beaks to attack the top of his head, causing a large amount of damage and pain. The gentleman has a bald head, so we can imagine what he was encouraged to go and do.
Real-life cases such as that have brought together Members from across the country to discuss this topic. Despite the anti-seagull sentiment, I am not advocating or supporting a cull of the species. Given the political surprises of the last two years, we should be very wary of polls. However, in 2015, YouGov surveyed more than 1,700 people on their support for a cull of seagulls and, according to the poll, 44% of people support one, while 36% oppose one. In beginning a cull of seagulls, I believe we could set a worrying precedent, especially as herring gulls are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I am therefore against the cull.
While we are on the subject of protected wildlife—I hope you will indulge me for a moment, Mr Streeter—Members may know that I have been running a national campaign to save the hedgehog by making it a protected species. I know the Minister will have heard me speaking about that several times over the last year; I realise that I have got quite a reputation around the country for it. I want to ask her this: how can it be that an aggressive bird such as the herring gull is protected when the small, timid hedgehog, whose population has declined by 30% in the last 10 years, is not?
I know my hon. Friend is a big supporter of the European Union. Is not the answer to his question that the Wildlife and Countryside Act derives from the EU birds directive, which forbids us to have a cull?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. I very much hope that that will be included in the Brexit Bill when it comes forward, so that we can protect our wildlife and, I hope, improve upon it, because that is important.
Back in September, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) tabled a question to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking whether it had made an assessment of the potential effect of removing the protected status of seagulls in urban areas.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. There is not only a contradiction between the lack of protection for hedgehogs and the protection for aggressive seagulls. Governments of all colours in the past have agreed to onshore and offshore wind farms, which randomly kill many seabirds. Does he agree that there is a huge contradiction between seagulls being protected, when we could save people from attack, and killing them randomly with wind farms?
I quite understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but I have always been a keen supporter of renewable energy. I have always thought that the more we can do to use tidal and wave technology, the better, but he makes a fair point.
The Minister replied to the written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, stating:
“The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 already allows for the control of gulls…in the interest of public health and safety or to prevent disease.”
I cannot see how a seagull attacking a pensioner, leaving her with a huge and bloody cut on her scalp, is not seen in terms of public health and safety.
My hon. Friend brings a really important discussion to the House for debate. In Berwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in my constituency, we are plagued with the seagull problem, to the point where last summer someone took it upon themselves to institute their own cull. While that was appreciated in some quarters, there is a risk that people are having to take the law into their own hands to deal with these difficult and aggressive birds, which means there are people wandering the streets of Berwick with firearms who really should not be doing so. The impact of that frustration is very real.
I would most certainly advise my constituents to ensure they do not seek to break the law.
There are a number of things that the Government can do to make the position much better. Will the Minister consider amending the 1981 Act so that it is easier to control the gull population when such attacks are happening? I also firmly believe that we need greater flexibility in protecting very different species. If population growth occurs, especially to the detriment of another species, it should be made easier to change the list of protected species, but very much on a regional basis.
Just before the last general election, the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), earmarked £250,000 for a study into the life cycle of the urban seagull. Unfortunately, that was scrapped three months later by DEFRA. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister could speak to the Treasury to try to get the money for that study back. I know that many Members who represent coastal towns and cities would be delighted if there were some movement on this, as many of our constituents’ lives are being blighted on a daily basis by seagulls.
Of course, this does not only affect coastal towns and cities; towns such as mine and the quality of my constituents’ lives are seriously affected. Given that we managed to clear pigeons from Trafalgar Square in a humane way, does my hon. Friend agree that it ought not to be beyond the wit of man to do the same for seagulls, which are such a menace to my constituents?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. When I was a child, I always believed that if there was a bad storm at sea, the birds had a tendency to come inland. I do not know whether that is still the case.
Studies show that between 2000 and 2015, the number of urban gull colonies in the UK and Ireland doubled from 239 to 473. Indeed, the number of gulls could have quadrupled in that time, as colonies are now larger than they were 17 years ago. The £250,000 study could mitigate our knowledge gap when it comes to gulls.
As you may know, Mr Streeter, I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. I therefore take a deep interest in how we can use our buildings to combat the scourge of angry seagulls. I believe we can use our built environment to tackle this problem. Commercial buildings should be proofed or built differently when redeveloped. Indeed, there are a number of bird deterrent systems. Bird nets are an effective deterrent system, providing a discreet and impenetrable barrier that protects premises without harming birds. Nets are one of the most effective and long-lasting ways of bird proofing, particularly for large open roofs, and can be used for commercial and industrial buildings such as warehouses.
Alternatively, a pin and wire system could be used to prevent perching without damaging the aesthetics or construction of the building. That system is almost invisible and is widely used across the UK for that reason. By preventing perching, the system makes it much more difficult for a gull to nest and eventually lay eggs.
The most well-known deterrent is spikes, which are used to deter not only gulls but pigeons and other birds. In built-up urban areas such as Plymouth, spikes would be helpful because they would make it very difficult for the birds to land, particularly in high-infestation areas. It has also been suggested to me that councils could paint eggs red, so that gulls think they are on fire and will not sit on top of them to incubate them. From what I understand, gulls see in black and white and not in colour—perhaps because they bought the wrong TV licence.
In terms of what can be done on the ground, there is an element of social responsibility, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said. Takeaways must take much more responsibility to keep their local environment clean, as overflowing bins and fish and chip wrappers are extremely attractive to gulls. Local authorities also need to be more proactive in keeping their streets clean and ensuring that litter bins are free from takeaway boxes and polystyrene containers. Those simple steps could help to take away one of the best sources of food for these birds.
In the 1970s, Restormel Council in Cornwall encouraged residents to leave out their black plastic bags, which were then picked at by the gulls in the local area. Residents would put blankets over the top of the bags to hide them from the gulls. I urge local authorities to use bins with secure lids, so that it is much more difficult for gulls to get into the bins and pick at the bags. I also encourage local authorities to continue their weekly bin collection, especially over the breeding season. I must confess, however, that my own local authority has just proposed a change to fortnightly bin collections.
Another form of contraception could be to replace eggs with dummy or fake eggs. Studies show that gulls welcome dummy eggs into the nest and will try to incubate them. I think that my own local authority in Plymouth used that method for a little while.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate such an important issue, which transcends constituencies and affects hundreds and thousands of people across our coastal towns and cities. I hope that the Minister will listen to not only my concerns, but those of many of my constituents and many other Members of Parliament and their constituents. This is an important matter, and I hope that the Government will act before someone is really hurt yet again by an aggressive seagull. As you know, Mr Streeter, I represent a naval constituency, so in that great tradition we should pay tribute to the words of Horatio Nelson: we need action this day.
Order. Four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. The winding-up speeches begin at 3.30 pm. We have 40 minutes and four speakers—do the maths.
May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Streeter? It is also a pleasure to be able to contribute to this timely and essential debate—passions have already been stirred by the opening contribution from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I agree with so much of what he said. I will just add a few thoughts from the perspective of the blighted and besieged people of Barrow and Furness, who have dealt with this threat for many years. I mentioned in my intervention the example of a pensioner, 72-year-old Brian Griffin, who was attacked on the way to the library in Walney and ended up having to be hospitalised.
There is a rather gruesome video on the North West Evening Mail website—I do not recommend that you click on it, Mr Streeter. It shows a very large herring gull feasting on a pigeon. There is another example of a gull popping into Greggs on Dalton Road to help itself to the produce. I have with me a photo that I took on my walk to the office a couple of weeks ago. You have rightly reminded me that it cannot be used as a prop, Mr Streeter, but let me take a moment to describe it. It shows, in one of the back alleys in central Barrow, a wheelie bin whose lid has clearly been left ajar, and the rubbish bags that are on show have become a feasting site for—well, I will not count them now, because that would not be a valuable use of time, but there are at least a dozen seagulls there. This is not just an inconvenience for people; it is a proper health and safety risk to our citizens.
In the four years since I was able locally to bring people together for the Barrow and Furness seagull summit and we instituted a three-point plan to deal with seagulls, there has been some effect. The measures that we all agreed to back then were pursuing contraception for seagulls where that was possible; removing the space where seagulls unfortunately too often congregate and nest in our town; and clearing out waste. There has been some sporadic progress.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his summit and for trying to achieve solutions locally, but does he agree that there is an opportunity for central Government to try to co-ordinate what might be best practice, potentially underpinned by a study, so that we are not having to reinvent the wheel in every location to work out what best practice is? We should know that from the centre.
Absolutely. That is an excellent idea, and I will come on to what more I think the Government could do in relation to individuals. I, too, was disheartened by the cancellation of the £250,000 project. I am sure that the former Chancellor took inspiration from one of my former employers, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in taking a personal interest in what might otherwise seem insignificant amounts of money at Budget time. That project clearly would have been welcomed in the towns blighted by seagulls. It is a real shame that the Chancellor cancelled it.
Would it not also be a good idea if local authorities were to work with other local authorities around them that have a similar issue? That could also save costs, and I am acutely aware that local authorities are finding it very difficult to make ends meet at the moment.
Absolutely. These are trying times. We have had the Barrow and Furness seagull summit. Perhaps the time has come for a national seagull summit, so that the blighted populations along our coasts can get together and discuss the issue, perhaps in comparative safety at an inland venue, for their mutual convenience.
BAE has taken action, which reduced many of the nesting sites in our town, and a number of years ago the council distributed a leaflet, but there is still a really significant problem. Certainly in the perception of most citizens in Barrow, Ulverston and across the area, the blight is pretty much as it was. That is not to say that we do not value the South Walney nature reserve, where the seagulls ought to be living their lives, but unfortunately they come into town too often because food supplies are too readily available there. There are clearly things that individuals and businesses can do to lock up those supplies, but I wonder whether there is a limit to the effectiveness even of those measures.
I am very interested in what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport says about the potential for reinstating a cull once the United Kingdom has left the European Union. Amid the flurry of worry and concern about downsides, that is possibly one thing that we ought to keep in mind as a real step forward for an independent UK. We will be able to make our own decisions about whether herring gulls, which are hugely preponderant in Barrow town centre, could be taken off the protected species list.
I will finish with a further suggestion as to how the Government could get involved. It is true that herring gulls are on the protected list, so the ability that is available in relation to other species, if they prove to be a health and safety concern, does not exist for gulls, but too often that leads individuals to believe that they can do nothing. Actually, if people go to the Natural England website and read the provisions of its general licence, that makes it clear that someone can take action against a herring gull by removing its nest and taking away its eggs if they are a property owner, there is a clear health and safety danger from failing to do that and other measures have proved ineffective. Many homeowners or managers of public buildings would clearly meet those criteria in the Furness area and, I imagine, in other towns.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many seaside properties are three-storey, not two-storey, and where they are owned by an elderly couple, it is just not possible for them to get up on the roof and remove the eggs?
Indeed, but let me explain what I strongly believe the provisions of that licence say. Perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify this. I can share with her the terms of the licence if her staff do not have this information and that would be helpful. I am not sure that it requires an elderly person to do the deed themselves. I think that they may be able to employ someone else to do it. Let us hope that there clearly is a role for local authorities. There is a long established role in vermin control. Someone can bring in people to help if they have a rat or mouse infestation. I think that there clearly is a role for local authorities, but where either the local authority or the Government could really make the difference would be in enabling citizens to know what their rights are in these situations.
Two things: first, citizens need to know what their rights are; secondly, we need to enable citizens to know what is most effective. All of us— individuals and local authorities—have limited resources and limited time. We need to target resources effectively.
Absolutely. People need to know they can take action. Yes, they need a licence to take action against herring gulls, but they can obtain the licence by going on the internet and printing it out for themselves. Does the Minister agree that there could be a case for, as I like to put it, mobile licensing awareness points around coastal towns? We would simply need desks with printers and bits of information to tell people what their rights are and to empower them to take back their communities against the blight of seagulls, which so often spoil our towns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on securing this important debate and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock).
I represent St Austell and Newquay in mid-Cornwall, and the issue of seagulls has long been a hot topic in my constituency, particularly in places such as Newquay, Mevagissey and Fowey—coastal towns that rely heavily on tourism. We have seen the growing nuisance of seagulls in recent years. That nuisance is to do with noise and droppings that can damage car paintwork, as well as gutters blocked by nests, which then cause gutters to overflow. There is also the nuisance of rubbish strewn across our streets every time there is a waste collection in the community.
Seagulls are not only a nuisance. Increasingly, there is an issue of danger. We often laugh at tourists in our seaside towns who have their pasty or their ice cream stolen by a sweeping seagull, but too frequently that results in injury. Our local A&E in Cornwall reports that every late spring/early summer our seagulls become more aggressive and several people visit A&E as a result of being injured by a seagull.
In 2015, there was the well-publicised case, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, of a family dog in Newquay being killed by a seagull. That drew a lot of media attention and was directly responsible for former Prime Minister David Cameron commenting that we needed to have a big conversation about seagulls. Sadly, we never got to have that big conversation. The issue went away, as it does most summers, and we have never really come back to address it in the way that I believe we need to.
Does my hon. Friend think that a clever idea would be for us to have a debate of this sort annually, especially at this time of year?
I am grateful for that comment from my hon. Friend. However we do it, we need to keep returning to this issue until it is addressed in such a way that seagulls no longer blight our seaside communities. Whether it is an annual debate or whatever the mechanism is, we need to keep focusing on the issue until something is done.
My observation is that we have almost two species of seagulls in this country. The gull we most often refer to is the herring gull, which is a large bird. I understand it can grow to about 55 cm, although now that we are leaving the EU we are allowed to say 22 inches. That bird is the most common cause of nuisance and attacks. As I said, it is now almost two species, as there are the birds that live out on the clifftops as nature intended them to live—by eating from the sea and living in the wild—but increasingly we see the urban seagulls that come into our towns becoming a very different species from those that live in the wild.
We do the seagulls no favour by drawing them into our towns. One of the facts that I discovered when I looked into this matter was that the average life expectancy for a gull that lives in the wild on the clifftops is more than 30 years, but for a gull that has come into the town and lives by scavenging off human waste it is 12 to 15 years. Gulls live more than twice as long when they live in their natural habitat than they do in our towns. By removing them from our towns, we would do the gulls a favour and help them to live the long and pleasurable lives that nature intended.
Increasingly in our seaside towns in Cornwall the gulls are seen as nothing more than flying rats. They scavenge from our rubbish bins and seek to steal food from us whenever they can.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned stealing food. I am sure he is aware of the video of the Aberdonian seagull shoplifting a packet of Doritos in Aberdeen. Seagulls cause real problems for residents, businesses and tourists. Will he join me in welcoming Aberdeenshire Council’s “Survivor’s Guide to Living with Urban Gulls” to deal with these issues?
I am grateful for that intervention. Indeed, I am aware that many local authorities across the country, including Cornwall Council, have issued guidance to residents and businesses on how to minimise the impact of gulls. All that is most welcome, but we are reaching a point where perhaps more direct action needs to be taken. Part of the process is about education and increasing awareness. The point already made by some hon. Members is that a lot of the problems are caused by people feeding gulls or leaving their food waste in such a way that it is easily accessible for gulls. Educating people to minimise that is one of the best ways to reduce the impact of gulls.
I was formerly the Cornwall Council cabinet member responsible for waste management. I am proud of the fact that during my time in the cabinet I introduced seagull sacks across Cornwall, which we made readily available through the local authority at a nominal cost. Residents can put their black bin bag rubbish into seagull-proof sacks. The seagulls cannot access the rubbish within. Encouraging residents to take such practical steps will minimise the impact that seagulls have in our communities. However, more needs to be done.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, it was regrettable that the Government cancelled the study on seagulls and their life cycles and habits, because we need to make informed decisions. There have been calls for a cull, although I am not convinced that is the answer. I do not completely reject some other measures that have been mentioned, such as taking eggs and such things. All those could work, but we need to make informed decisions about how we tackle this menace. A comprehensive study of and report on seagulls, their impact and their life cycle would help us to form an action plan to address the issue for the long term and help us to minimise the impact that seagulls have.
I would certainly welcome the Minister’s comments and views. Is she prepared to support a call for a new study to be done on how seagulls impact on our coastal communities—as we have heard, increasingly this is not only a coastal issue—so that we can have comprehensive knowledge of the issues and then make informed choices about how we address the problem?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for initiating the debate as this is an important issue that many of our communities and constituents want to see us address. I hope this can be the start of not just a big conversation, but some action that might go somewhere and help us to address the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for introducing the debate. It is quite nice to be in a debate where we all agree about what the problem is, and about the fact that we must find some way through it. Indeed, we all agree that seagulls are a menace to our towns and cities, thriving on litter and behaving aggressively towards other birds, and to pets and people. They are increasingly problematic.
I particularly want to speak because seagulls are a problem for the seaside town of Largs, in my constituency. I recommend Largs to those hon. Members who have not yet been fortunate enough to visit—it is a beautiful and picturesque town with much to offer residents and visitors—but the presence of seagulls is a constant challenge. That challenge can range from a simple nuisance to a downright menace. As hon. Members have mentioned, some people have been quite badly injured; others have escaped with just being terrorised.
I think that there has already been mention of the first important instrument that should be used to tackle seagulls in coastal areas, which is for the public to stop feeding them. Feeding only attracts more gulls and builds up their expectation that the food is there for the taking. As we know, seagulls hover in the sky waiting to snatch food from local people who are eating fish and chips on the prom. They have even been known to plague Largs residents sitting in their gardens some distance from the shoreline. It is important for day trippers in seaside towns such as Largs to appreciate that they should not feed seagulls. Largs welcomes thousands of day trippers every year, at high season. If someone took their child there on a visit and the child was viciously attacked by a seagull, it seems logical that they would not choose to return.
The world-famous Largs ice cream outlet Nardini’s has even warned its patrons not to eat the ice cream outdoors, as seagulls will soon appear to claim it as their own. Indeed, nothing can really be safely eaten on the shorefront without risking life and limb at the hands, or should I say beak, of a vicious seagull. I can top the story told by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) about the snatching of a packet of Doritos in his constituency. In my constituency, a seagull was bold enough to snatch a £20 note from an unsuspecting visitor’s hand, only to deposit it some distance down the street when it realised that it was not particularly appetising.
The problem of seagulls is not confined to town centres and the sea front, however. They breed and nest on the flat roofs of houses; they squabble with each other; they squawk incessantly at all hours of the day or night, creating a nasty racket; they bombard and soil windows; and they soil washing. That noise and filth, which can only be a health hazard, constitute a serious challenge for residents of even the most picturesque towns, such as Largs.
Largs, however, has been trying to think creatively about the issue. One idea that was mooted, which I do not think has been mentioned today—perhaps there is good reason—is the deployment of birds of prey to control the number of seagulls. That would mean using hawks as a deterrent, working the seagulls away to a much less densely populated area and letting them congregate elsewhere. I understand that that solution has worked in Anglesey, so why not in Largs or other seaside towns? It would also be important to provide a feeding station elsewhere, to move the food source and to keep the seagulls in a designated zone. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned, that would be good for the seagulls’ health and lifespan.
Assistance has been sought from local councils, and in Largs that has led to the use of solar seagull-proof bins. The bins in Largs are often filled to overflowing, given the high turnover of visitors in summer. When the town is packed with visitors the bins start to overflow very early in the day, but solar seagull-proof bins were installed on the seafront last summer. As well as having improved capacity, they compress the waste and alert the council when they need emptying. That innovation has been warmly welcomed by visitors and residents. I can take no credit for lobbying for those bins; the credit must go to the local MSP. In the interest of family harmony, I should say that that happens to be Kenneth Gibson, my husband.
I hope that the hon. Lady can help me; I am somewhat confused. We have devolved Assemblies, including the Scottish Assembly. What role does the Scottish Assembly play in all this? Is it a reserved matter for the Westminster and Whitehall Government or is it also a policy issue in the Scottish Parliament?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the matter is ultimately the responsibility of local authorities, but support and guidance on the treatment of species is given by the Scottish Parliament. He may well ask—I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that this is at the core of his question—what I am doing here today. I will enlighten him: it is to share good practice. I came here hoping that his pearls of wisdom would cascade down to me and that I could report some innovations back to Scotland. I hope that, similarly, I can help him.
I was genuinely concerned to know how the whole thing works. I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, and every time there was an issue that was thought to be Northern Irish, a Committee member would remind me that it was a reserved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and nothing to do with us in Westminster. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Lady for taking some time to explain the constitutional impact.
I am delighted to be of service to the hon. Gentleman.
How we deal with seagulls and their interference with the town and residents is a long-standing issue. Further measures are needed, and we have not solved the problem yet. Wild birds are protected by law in Scotland, but—the hon. Gentleman anticipated my remarks—local authorities and authorised persons are allowed to control and manage certain birds for the protection of public health and safety, and to prevent the spread of disease. If the problem is believed to have become unmanageable, and it is thought that public health is in serious danger, local authorities can take further measures.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we need to continue to monitor the situation. The public and residents of coastal areas—but not just coastal areas—need protection from this menace. We must work towards a more permanent solution to this difficult issue and continue to seek innovations. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say and what pearls of wisdom she can offer, so that I can rush back and share them with the people of Scotland, who will be most interested. I hope that I have provided some enlightenment to the good Members here today who do not have the privilege of representing anywhere in Scotland.
You have also name-checked your husband, which is even more important.
I would love to mention my wife, Mr Streeter, but she does not have much to do with this.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. There is no shortage of material from St Ives that I could talk about with reference to seagulls, and their welfare—it is not just about their being pests. St Ives’s fame comes most recently, as many in the House will know, from its neighbourhood plan. Hon. Members can talk to me about it later, if they are interested; it hit the international headlines. St Ives is also famous for Barbara Hepworth, the Tate Gallery, beautiful beaches, and seagulls. In fact last July an 18-year-old girl was airlifted to hospital having fallen off a 15-foot wall because of an incident involving a seagull and an ice cream.
This is a very tricky public debate, as I learnt without even contributing to it. At the same time as David Cameron was making his comments last summer, I was having a surgery in a local pub in Longrock. I came out of the pub with the landlady and she asked me to do something about a seagull that had been injured. It was there by her doorway, causing a problem to people coming in and out of the pub. I bundled it up, put it in my MG, drove it home and gave it some care and attention in our chicken run. After I got into my house having done all that, I opened my email inbox and had a whole host of emails wanting me to be removed from the planet because of our attitude towards seagulls. I am aware how tricky this public debate is, so my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is a very brave man for raising it—this is an emotive issue.
There is no disputing that seagulls are beginning to behave badly. We have mentioned most of the issues today. There is a safety issue for both humans—as I mentioned—and animals; we know of stories in Cornwall of pets and other wildlife being attacked by seagulls. There is also an issue for tourism. Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) referred to the noise that seagulls make, but when I am in my constituency on the phone to anyone anywhere else in the country, they always refer to the lovely sound of seagulls in the background. Many people come to Cornwall because of the contribution that seagulls make.
The truth is that seagulls are getting a bit out of control; however, this is no new problem. My hon. Friend also referred to the work that he did on Cornwall Council to try to solve the problem of seagulls distributing people’s rubbish wherever that rubbish might be on bin day. I was a member of Penwith District Council—we used to have six district councils in Cornwall before we went to a unitary system—and we were the only council to introduce wheelie bins to solve this problem. We had to do that because of our tourism and our local economy. The risk to health was a real problem. People would put their rubbish out late one night and in the morning it was everywhere but where it was intended to be, so wheelie bins were introduced. It is of great concern in other parts of Cornwall that Cornwall Council refuses to distribute them.
To pick up my hon. Friend’s point, and I have some knowledge of this, part of the problem in places such as Cornwall is that in a lot of our very small coastal villages wheelie bins are completely impractical because people do not have the space outside their properties to store them. That is why, when I was a cabinet member, we introduced the sacks, which are a lot easier to store.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Again, that is exactly the problem in St Ives; I have elderly residents who have had their bins removed for that very reason. We need to understand how to manage the problem of seagulls and other wildlife distributing our rubbish. That is a big debate—perhaps the subject for another Westminster Hall debate.
Does my hon. Friend not also feel that the seagull cause has been helped by the opening of “Desert Island Discs”, which has seagulls calling in the background?
When my hon. Friend has the opportunity to go on that programme, I suggest he try to correct that, but I will not go into it.
There are things that we can do and there is some human responsibility in this. First, we really must stop feeding seagulls. There are people in Mousehole, where we have a particular problem, who have their own pet seagulls—or believe they do—and feed them every single morning. People try to explain the situation to them, but they continue to feed the seagulls. There are some really lovely people who think that they are caring for these beautiful birds, but actually they are not being caring at all. We need to get the message out to these people somehow that feeding the seagulls is not good for all concerned—including the seagulls themselves, I believe. We also need to address how we secure our bins and look after rubbish because, again, that is obviously a key tension.
There is some conversation about how we provide contraceptives for seagulls. Rather than cull them, which I assure hon. Members would be a very difficult and unpalatable thing to argue in my constituency, there must be a way that we can introduce contraceptives to seagulls to reduce their ability to reproduce. I imagine that if we did that for three or four years, it would have a significant, positive impact on the number of seagulls. I would not personally be willing to offer to do a drug trial, but I am sure that I can suggest ways that a contraceptive for seagulls can be trialled in that area. I know that it already exists.
Finally, we could remove eggs. I was in the building trade and when I did my apprenticeship I used to go up on high street roofs—mainly those of banks. A colleague of mine, who was considerably older than me and more responsible, would have a yard broom and would wave away the seagulls that were intent on knocking me off the roof because I was removing their eggs. That was part of my apprenticeship in the building trade. We used to go up on roofs at this time of year and a bit later to remove eggs because that was the only way that we could control the problem back then. I understand that we are still able to do that, but there are obviously some safety implications and we need to support communities to do it. In fact, in my building trade I spent a lot of time and lots of people’s money on creating all sorts of nets, wires and the various things we have discussed. We even looked at creating ways of spraying water on seagulls, because apparently they do not nest on roofs if they are sprayed.
There are lots of people out there who are trying to resolve this issue, but I completely accept that we must avoid having to come here every year to have a discussion about seagulls—although that is important until we resolve this issue. We need leadership from Government, support for councils and local communities and an honest debate about not how we cull and get rid of seagulls, but how we keep communities safe, protect coastal communities and tourism and look after the welfare of these magnificent birds.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I really appreciate it that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has brought this issue to us for debate. I want to start by talking about Aberdeen and the reasons why I feel it is important for me to be here. I was reading the Library briefing—those briefings are really useful for a lot of debates—and about the number of gulls that are apparently in the United Kingdom. Apparently there are 45,000 herring gulls in the United Kingdom. According to the city council’s website, there are 3,500 pairs in Aberdeen. That means we have 15% of the UK’s herring gull population in our city. That seems quite unbelievable, but it comes from the figures provided. Look up internet memes on seagulls—the Aberdeen seagull is the size of a large dog. It is absolutely ginormous and it regularly gets mentioned; people who come to uni in Aberdeen from Glasgow or elsewhere in Scotland or England are shocked at the size of these creatures. They are not like normal seagulls; they are ginormous. We mostly have herring gulls, although we also have some lesser black-backed gulls.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) talked about gulls beginning to behave badly, but he went on to say that we have been grappling with this problem for a long time. I grew up in Aberdeen and during my entire lifetime there has been a plague of these creatures. In Aberdeen we introduced wheelie bins and on-street bins as well because we have a huge number of tenement properties in the city. There is a huge number of places where people cannot have wheelie bins. We now have a really good on-street bin system with large bins on the streets. Residents have to put up with a slight loss of parking as a result of those big bins, which have big lids on them. The birds cannot access the bins, so they have been pretty successful in deterring the birds’ access to food.
As for the issues caused by seagulls, stealing food and aggression have been mentioned, as has the fact that they used be on land really only between April and September, but increasingly are beginning to winter in cities and towns rather than going out to sea. That causes a real problem because we continue to have these issues throughout the year.
There are a couple of issues that have not really been mentioned, such as noise. A huge amount of the correspondence that I get from constituents on this subject is about the problem of noise. It is about the concern that they are being woken at 3 o’clock in the morning by seagulls fighting with one another. I used to live on the Gallowgate in Aberdeen. There are several multi-storey buildings there and we were on the 13th floor of flats. Without fail, throughout the breeding season, we would be woken throughout the night by the noise of seagulls and that was a real problem.
Gulls cause significant damage to buildings, around chimney stacks, for example. They cause damage to people’s roofs. They cause damage to business buildings. Again, that has not really been mentioned. There is a financial cost associated with this problem, as well as the issue of people being scared of coming into town because of the aggression.
Seagulls also carry diseases. According to a piece of literature from our local authority—it is also called a “Survivor’s Guide”; I think Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council got together to compose these survivors’ guides—they can carry salmonella and TB. It is pretty concerning to know that we have these creatures roaming about our city, carrying diseases that can badly affect human beings.
Those are all the issues, and my mailbox indicates that seagulls are never far away from the minds of my constituents. When people come in the door to talk to my office staff, they often mention in passing the problems that they have faced with seagulls. In fact, I wrote to the Scottish Government Minister last September following a spate of emails that residents had sent raising concerns.
It strikes me that there are a few things that can be done and a few things that could be done better. In Scotland, taking action by removing eggs, for example, is licensed by Scottish Natural Heritage. Companies can exercise that option, which ensures that the action is taken humanely and only in circumstances where there is no alternative. Action cannot be taken when spikes could be put up. However, gulls are increasingly managing to navigate a way around spikes. They have more of a problem with nets, but nets cannot be put on all roofs.
Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is that gulls are very tenacious and intelligent birds and that no matter what measures we take to deter them, it usually only a matter of time before they find a way around them?
I absolutely agree. One thing about gulls is that they learn from one another, so if one gull manages to find a way around something, they all do, because they observe one another and learn. Such things as removing eggs and oiling eggs work, as does poking holes in them. Dumfries and Galloway Council did a study on the efficacy of those methods, and the results showed that they work.
Other studies have previously been done in Scotland. In 2010, the Scottish Government commissioned a study on using falcons and birds of prey, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned, so they have specific details on that. That 10-week study was not quite as successful as it could have been, but the Scottish Government learnt a lot and have a huge amount of recommendations for people. For example, we do not want to have falcons flying around at the same time each day because the gulls get used to it and stop being scared of them. A huge number of useful recommendations came out of the study. Using such things as distress calls, kites, pyrotechnics and lasers was also suggested.
I appreciate having a chance to speak in the debate. To wind up my comments, an issue we face in Aberdeen is that although the Scottish Government have overarching responsibility for the matter and local authorities are then responsible for specific areas of nuisance, the local authority is clear that individual building owners have to take the action. As we see when we are trying to get lights replaced in tenement buildings, it is sometimes very difficult to get owners to take action. If the council is not the majority owner in a property—for example, a tenement building—and we are trying to get eggs removed from it, it is very hard to get that to happen. Although sharing good practice is a good idea and we should do more of it, there is an issue with who is responsible and the lack of compulsion on landlords and property owners to take action. If they are not willing to take action, the noise made by the birds affects everybody around. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for securing the debate.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on securing this debate on an ongoing issue that is familiar to all of us who represent coastal communities. He made an excellent speech with some really important points for consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) spoke passionately about how the problem affects his constituents, and there were well informed and important contributions from the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for St Ives (Derek Thomas).
Gulls are clearly a real problem in many parts of the country, particularly when they are breeding, but it is also clear that there is no quick-fix solution. We need to understand bird behaviour before deciding on a final course of action. As we have heard, gulls are problematic, particularly when they are breeding and nesting. They are often doing what any parent would do if they felt threatened: they are protecting their young. Urban gulls are often just looking for a nesting site that they see as safe from predators and with a good food supply. They do not know that they are sitting on top of somebody’s house or business.
We have heard that gulls enjoy a protected status in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which means that they cannot be intentionally killed or their nests intentionally destroyed. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which I am a member, notes with concern that the British gull population is in decline, so we have to look at what we can do to solve the problem without contributing to the further decline of the species.
Although there is marginal support for culling gulls, I support the RSPB’s position—and, it seems, that of the majority of hon. Members in the debate—that that should not be the immediate way forward. We should instead look at non-harmful deterrents as a priority. As Natural England has said, many problems associated with gulls can be avoided by taking preventive measures. Hon. Members have talked about the nets and wires that can be installed to deter nesting on buildings, and the need for better food storage and waste facility areas so that the food waste is kept secure and away from gulls. The public also needs to be discouraged from deliberately feeding them.
Gulls live for a long time and are intelligent and have good memories, so they have quickly learned that humans are a reliable source of food. We need to ensure that food is not just dropped and left—people need to be encouraged not to litter. We also need to ensure, as several hon. Members from Cornwall have mentioned, that there are secure bins or sacks in which food can be disposed of.
This problem has been going on for an incredibly long time, and although we could have an annual debate, we just need to crack on with tackling it. It is time that the Government gave councils that are dealing with this problem the resources that they need to manage the gull populations and solutions properly.
We have also heard about noise. Some areas have trialled high-frequency noise emitters—they are not too dissimilar to the Mosquito devices that have been used in areas with high levels of anti-social behaviour—but the results have been mixed. Local residents who can hear the noise have complained that their lives have been blighted and made a misery, so that solution clearly cannot be used everywhere.
As mentioned by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, one way of potentially deterring gull populations is through the use of birds such as hawks or falcons. In 2009, an interesting study was conducted by the Scottish Government in Dumfries, just across the Solway from my constituency. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the Harris hawks that we use on the parliamentary estate to keep down the number of pigeons. It seems that peregrine falcons could play a role in combating certain species of gulls, not by attacking or killing them, but simply by scaring them away. A humane system of deterrence such as that should be encouraged.
As we have heard, this is a serious health and safety issue. Last summer, in Maryport in my constituency, residents were surprised to see a notice come through their door saying that their post could not be delivered due to seagulls.
How did the notice get through the door?
Please continue, Ms Hayman.
If I may ask the same question, Mr Streeter, how did the leaflets get through the door, then?
My understanding is that the seagulls were extremely aggressive. I do not know how the postman managed to get the notice through the door. That is an extremely good question, and I shall have go back and find the answer—perhaps he put it in a different box. Anyway, the Royal Mail in Maryport managed the problem by getting a local falconer, Mike Morrison, to offer up his services and his hawks and successfully scare the gulls off so that the postmen could return and deliver the local mail.
Meanwhile, we have also had a problem with dive-bombing gulls on an industrial estate in Carlisle. Local businesses have got together to deploy an army of fake hawks to stop the gulls from nesting on their roofs. They report that it is working so far, so perhaps local councils could support that approach, providing that the Government give them the funding that they desperately need to buy the fake hawks.
Does the Minister agree that a cull is not the way forward and that we really need to look instead at non-harmful deterrence methods? Much has been said in this debate about the role that local authorities play in managing the problem, but they will only succeed if they are given the funding that they need to implement whichever method they believe is right for their area. We have heard a lot of good ideas that could solve the problem, but as we know, councils are seriously strapped for cash at the moment. Residents and businesses are being left to fork out their own money or put up with the situation.
I would really like to hear from the Minister how the Government plan to ensure that local authorities are given the financial support they need to tackle the problems caused by gulls. We have heard that the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion of a way forward was a big conversation, but I reiterate other Members present in saying that now is the time for action.
Before I call the Minister, I remind her to leave a few moments for Oliver Colvile to sum up at the end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
A flock of seagulls can be a very frightening sight for many people when they anticipate being dive-bombed or attacked. Some may have thought that this would be a light-hearted debate, but hon. Members have been assiduous in raising genuine concerns and in painting a vivid picture of the problems caused by the high density of gulls in our coastal towns and cities as well as some places inland. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) is well known in the House as the saviour of the hedgehog, but now he will be known as the scourge of the seagull.
The Government recognise that gulls can be problematic when found in high densities in urban areas—my hon. Friend mentioned the problems recently experienced in Plymouth. I fully understand that gulls can be a serious nuisance. Sensible and proportionate action should be taken by using the range of measures already available and by raising awareness about what works locally. We have heard many good examples of solutions today, but local councils especially will know best what works in their areas. A falcon may be suitable in one part of the country, but in other places we may need certain kinds of bins or sacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out—and as I experienced recently when I holidayed not in his constituency but in Salcombe, where we had certain kinds of waste to deal with.
This debate was headline news today. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked what we can do to raise awareness of the issue. Well, it has made “BBC Breakfast”, so that has raised some awareness. People may watch this debate live or on catch-up and headlines may follow in the media to make people realise what they can do.
Does the Minister agree that it would be totally unacceptable, cruel and messy for people to adopt the solution that has been circulated on the internet of using bicarbonate of soda and bread? That is a completely unacceptable way of dealing with the seagull menace.
I completely agree. An hon. Member whom I will not name raised that idea with me this morning and I told them off, because it is not acceptable to endorse such a cruel way of tackling the issue.
Hon. Members have referred to gull behaviour and to the fact that the urban gull is starting to display unacceptable characteristics. A build-up of gull populations is often the result of a readily available food supply and the availability of attractive sites for roosting or breeding. Herring gulls and occasionally lesser black-backed gulls roost and nest on buildings, where—as we have heard—they may become aggressive, particularly when incubating eggs and rearing young. Their protective behaviour can result in attacks on members of the public who are in the street or who need access to roofs for maintenance purposes.
I understand that gull behaviour can have a negative impact on people’s lives in coastal towns and cities, including inland—we have heard about Cheltenham, for instance. However, by using common sense, we can deal with the issue effectively through existing legislation and practical local action. I am particularly keen to draw attention to examples of local authorities taking such positive action to manage gulls, but I first want to set the context of the conservation status of gulls.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will understand that although lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls may cause problems locally, there are serious concerns about their conservation status at a national level. As has been pointed out, gulls, like all wild birds, are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Despite their appearance of thriving in urban areas throughout the UK, breeding populations of the herring gull have declined sharply and populations of the lesser black-backed gull have declined at a number of important sites. The UK herring gull population fell by 55% between 1970 and 2002, despite increases in some urban populations. As a result, the herring gull is listed as a species of principal importance and has been red-listed as a bird of conservation concern, while the lesser black-backed gull is a conservation priority and is amber-listed. The great black-backed gull is a scarce breeding species in England, with a breeding population of less than 1,500 pairs and wintering populations also in decline; it now meets the qualifying criteria for amber-listing as a bird of conservation concern.
Is the Minister aware of a point that I made earlier? Part of the problem is that a gull living in a town has less than half the life expectancy of a gull living in the wild, and that is one of the reasons for gulls’ diminishing numbers. Getting them out of our towns and back where they belong is one way that we can address the declining population.
I agree that that is the outcome we want, but we cannot just wish the issue away by saying, “Let’s get them out of towns.” I also agree that this is a man-made problem, because people are feeding and have lost control of the situation. The messages that we are sending today and that are being sent by councils are important, because we need to get it across to people that by feeding these birds they are worsening the problem, rather than making their “new best friend”, which is how they might see it—it probably does not help that Hastings adverts make seagulls look cute.
We want to see these wonderful birds in their natural habitat, rather than in an urban habitat. When we see large numbers of them in certain urban areas, it may be easy to forget that their conservation status is under threat at a national level. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that, given the decline in breeding populations and the pressures on them, there are no plans to change the legal protection afforded to gulls.
There has been some discussion about research—my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport referred to the University of the West of England. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looks forward to reading the university’s findings, and I am sure that we will comment on them in due course, if appropriate. As for the £250,000 grant, I am sure that my answer will disappoint my hon. Friends, but I do not believe that such research is currently necessary, because a wide range of tools are already available. However, DEFRA has commissioned research, which is still at an early stage, on the use of immunocontraceptives in a range of species, including birds. There are also possible evidence projects with Natural England, including a key project on gull life that aims to deliver special protection area site action and a full survey of urban nesting gulls. We are waiting to find out whether our bid for EU funding has been successful; we hope to hear by the end of March. A studentship has begun, led by Exeter University in partnership with the British Ornithological Trust and Natural England, and this summer fieldwork will commence that aims to understand differences in the urban and natural breeding populations of urban gulls. Research is already ongoing.
The Minister is being generous in giving way, but either we want these gulls in urban areas or we do not—and we are clear that we do not. She is clear on that as well, so is she interested in exploring the idea of a regional protected status for gulls that applies only outside urban areas where they are a menace and are not wanted?
I am afraid the law does not allow that—
Then let us change the law.
It certainly will not be possible to do that until we leave the European Union, and I am concerned that opening up elements of regional protection might make the law unworkable. Nevertheless, let us consider that when the opportunity is there, in due course. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will return to this subject, although I am also sure that he will try to ensure that we never again have to debate these measures, by getting on with things.
Will the Minister give way?
I will just make a bit of progress, because I will talk about Scotland and Aberdeen—
My point was on the studies.
Okay; I give way.
Specifically on the studies, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who spoke from the Labour Front Bench, and I both mentioned the study undertaken in Scotland in 2010. I would appreciate it if the Minister had a look at that. I would also appreciate it if the contraceptives study that DEFRA is undertaking, which she has just mentioned, could be shared with the Scottish Government when it comes out.
I am quite sure that that research can be made available, and the research the hon. Lady refers to is well established and available for anybody to see.
The current legislation provides sufficient powers to take appropriate action to tackle the problems caused by gulls. It provides a range of methods that those authorised can use to manage birds humanely, and it permits population control, nest clearance and egg control. I assure the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that landowners can employ competent others to act under a general licence. While there are no provisions within current legislation to allow the control of birds specifically for the purpose of relieving nuisance or damage to property, the legislation allows for the control or disturbance of certain wild birds for particular reasons. Those most relevant to urban gull issues are if such action is taken in the interest of public health and safety, or to prevent disease.
Natural England’s general licence allows those authorised to kill or take lesser black-backed gulls and to damage or destroy the nests or eggs of lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls to preserve public health or safety, or to prevent the spread of disease or serious damage to livestock and crops. These general licences have a very low regulatory burden. Those authorised do not need to apply to Natural England to make use of them, provided they comply with the licence conditions. These conditions include making sure that non-lethal methods are ineffective or impractical, and users do not need to report any action undertaken to Natural England.
Where an individual cannot undertake the control required under a general licence, it does not mean they cannot take action, but they would need to apply for an individual licence to do so. Natural England commonly issues individual licences to permit the control of gulls for health and safety purposes. On average, it issues 17 individual licences for herring gull control for health and safety purposes annually, and it grants most of the applications that it receives. Indeed, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 also provides for action to be taken without a licence if the action in question is urgently necessary, such as preserving public health and safety. This allows a person to take action in a genuine emergency without fear of committing an offence, where it would not have been possible for them to have predicted the issue and to have acted under a licence. I understand that between 2014 and 2017, Natural England issued 10 individual licences in Devon to permit the control of large gulls, in addition to the general licences.
While licensing control of birds populations can help to control the number of gulls, we should not rely solely on a licensing approach to control gull populations. We should look at other measures to manage the problem in a sustainable way. Local authorities, businesses and individuals are able to take a range of actions to manage urban gull populations. We encourage all local authorities and businesses to help to address the problem by, as has largely been pointed out, removing sources of food such as fallen fruit and accessible household waste, using bins with secured lids, ensuring that domestic animals are not fed outside, using birds of prey to scare gulls, and providing local education measures. In all cases, individuals and local authorities concerned about the effects of gulls are recommended to seek advice from Natural England’s wildlife licensing unit, which offers free advice to those experiencing problems with gulls. Local teams have the knowledge and expertise to help.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is aware of some of the excellent practice across the country. In his own county, East Devon District Council has introduced a range of current control measures—I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is in his place, I think for the next debate. These measures include using litter bins in seaside towns with secure openings to prevent scavenging, displaying posters in seaside towns and distributing them to local food businesses—
Will my hon. Friend give way for a moment?
No, I am afraid that I need to make progress. I know that I am pointing out great things that East Devon, rather than Plymouth, has done; nevertheless, I feel I need to say it.
Posters in seaside towns can inform residents and tourists of the risks of feeding seagulls. Other control measures include offering targeted advice to property owners on methods of protecting their own buildings. In addition, East Devon’s seaside towns have their refuse collected earlier in the day during the summer—I say that to answer a point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). Those towns have their refuse collected earlier in the summer, which successfully reduces littering caused by seagulls.
I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning what East Devon is doing. Of course, we have problems in Exmouth, Sidmouth and other seaside holiday towns. Does she think that other local authorities would do well to learn from what East Devon is pioneering?
That is a fair point. I also point out the example of Herefordshire, which is not too far away from my right hon. Friend’s constituency. Herefordshire County Council has taken sensible and effective steps, such as removing gulls nests and eggs from April to August, which has meant that the number of pairs of breeding gulls has dropped considerably, from 500 in 2008 to approximately 200 in 2015.
The Local Government Association is well placed to share best practice on this issue. However, I must disappoint the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) by saying that central Government cannot provide additional resources on this matter. Having said that, it so happens that one of my councillors from Suffolk Coastal Council, Councillor Andy Smith, is chair of the coastal special interest group at the LGA, and I will ask him to consider this matter. I will also make sure that he invites councillors from inland towns as well as from coastal towns to contribute.
I am grateful to all Members for debating this issue and raising their constituency concerns. I encourage local authorities to continue to work together to share examples of methods and techniques that successfully deal with the issue of gulls in seaside towns and cities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport referred to “Desert Island Discs”. I insist that he has a record from that excellent Liverpool band, A Flock of Seagulls. My particular favourite is “The More You Live, The More You Love”, but he can refer to my contribution to find more song titles that he might wish to know about.
I hope that my hon. Friend understands that, although this issue is important, a lot of the action to deal with it must be taken locally and individually, and we must strike a balance between protecting species such as gulls and also fulfilling our international commitments, while mitigating the impacts of such species in our towns and cities.
I am sure that many hon. Members will be able to go back to their councils and their constituents over-brimming with the ideas that we have heard about, including those from over the border in Scotland; we heard some great examples from there. In fact, a professor from Leeds University has said that Aberdeen was getting this matter right, including flying a bird of prey around one of the local sports stadiums before matches, such is the prevalence of gulls and the risk of their attacking. So there is plenty of good practice to share.
Mr Streeter, I hope that we never again have to debate this matter. Nevertheless, I am sure that we will return to it. As we have heard, these gulls are clever creatures, but I am sure that we can defeat this menace.
Oliver Colvile, you have a few minutes to respond.
Thank you very much, Mr Streeter, for chairing this debate so well; I am incredibly grateful to you for doing that. I also thank the hon. Members who have participated in this debate; I thank them all very much indeed. I especially thank the Scottish National party Members, for—quite rightly—giving some lectures on how the devolved responsibilities fit in.
I am grateful that the Minister has taken very seriously this whole matter of gull wars; in fact, if I was reapplying for this debate, I would call it a “gull war” debate, rather than necessarily one about seagulls.
A number of issues still need to be addressed. Evidently, we need quite a large amount of research to be done, and I encourage the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take this matter up and hold an inquiry into it. There is a lot of knowledge out there about what we should be doing.
I just say to my hon. Friend the Minister that although Plymouth is in the county of Devon, it is a unitary authority. Consequently, it is very independent of what takes place in Exeter county hall. Finally, could the Minister consider having a page on the DEFRA website that says what people can do to try to deal with this issue? We need to bring together a lot of the information that people have talked about today, so that we can have best practice and get the LGA much more firmly engaged. I am quite keen to ensure that we continue to monitor this issue and hold the Government to account, and I hope to apply for another debate on it next year, when we can see what progress has been made. I also thank my researcher, Stuart Pilcher, who has done an enormous amount of work on this issue and helped me to write my speech.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered seagulls in coastal towns and cities.
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]