DEFRA rejects calls for more research into scourge of urban seagulls

April 26, 2009 at 3:29 pm Leave a comment

seagulls

by Tony Grew

Hundreds of people are attacked every year by seagulls scavenging in urban areas, a Lib Dem MP has said.

Don Foster, Lib Dem MP for Bath, raised the issue in an adjournment debate last week.

“With a wingspan of four and a half feet, an adult body weight of about 2 lb, a long, vicious beak, a flight speed of 40 mph and sharp claws that are swift to draw blood in an attack, each bird represents an impressive threat as it hurtles through the sky,” he told MPs.

“As well as the birds attacking people, urban communities increasingly have to deal with their ear-splitting noise, the mess gulls’ excrement makes on rooftops, pavements, cars, and windows and the damage they do to buildings—even pulling away lead flashings. ”

Mr Foster said that there were no urban seagulls before the Second World War, but the increasing use of landfill sites has not just given them a source of food but caused their numbers to explode.

“Towns are 4 to 6° C warmer than the surrounding countryside, and street lighting enables gulls to scavenge at night as well as during the day,” he said.

“Gull expert Peter Rock wrote to me, saying:

“Three years ago, I estimated that we had 130,000-180,000 pairs of gulls nesting on rooftops in the whole of Britain and Ireland. It’s quite clear that the growth of these urban colonies has been startlingly high. I estimate that by 2019” — 10 years’ time — “we could have over a million gulls nesting on our rooftops.

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

Mr Foster said in his Bath constituency, the seagull colony has doubled in size in just six years.

“We now have more than 850 breeding pairs. When non-breeders are added, it means that we already cope with 2,500 seagulls, and the numbers continue to increase rapidly. Other places are in an even worse position.

“With gull populations expanding rapidly, the problems, previously perceived as little more than an irritation and often with a great deal of mirth, have, instead, become very costly indeed.

“Repairs to damage, clearing up fouling and mess, nest clearance and so on are obvious areas of expense, but gull noise elicits the vast majority of complaints, affects tourism and the resource from it, causes sleep deprivation in the workforce and distresses hospital patients. Attacks from aggressively protective parent birds deter shoppers, with obvious effects on local economies.”

Mr Foster said many of the methods used at the moment to deter gulls are ineffective, and that scientists actually knew relatively little about them. Yet the government has no plans to fund research.

Whip Helen Goodman responded on behalf of the government, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Huw Irranca-Davies, was attending an EU meeting.

She said the government recognised the problem and the need for action, but said Mr Foster’s statistics were “unrealistic.”

“The Joint Nature Conservation Committee estimates, which are based on the seabird colony register census in 2002, show that there are probably some 30,000 pairs of gulls in urban areas out of a total breeding population of 370,000.”

Ms Goodman rejected his call for more research,

“Gull behaviour is influenced primarily by the need for food and for safe nesting and roosting sites, regardless of where they may be.

“Gulls will scavenge and exploit food supplies on the coast as much as inland.

“Research funding, especially in the present financial circumstances, must be targeted at problems where there are no, or insufficient, solutions, but that is not the case for gulls because a range of well-tested measures, some of which have been researched extensively, can be used to overcome the problems, including adult bird removal, oiling or pricking of eggs—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned—nest destruction and the proofing of buildings.

“DEFRA has commissioned research into the use of immuno-contraceptives in a range of species, including birds. That research is still at an early stage, however, and we do not want to wait for further results before continuing with effective action now.”

She said the solution was not culling birds but removing access to the birds’ food source.

“The Government urge all local authorities and individuals to help address that problem by, first, avoiding the spillage of foodstuffs; secondly, keeping food storage areas secure and bird-proof; thirdly, ensuring that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy; and fourthly, limiting or preventing the deliberate feeding of birds by the public.

“I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that local authorities in Devon and Cornwall have had good results by using hessian sacks for rubbish disposal to deter gulls from accessing food.

“The gulls find it more difficult to deal with hessian sacks than with plastic sacks.

“I understand that it is proposed to trial the use of hessian sacks in Bath as well, to reduce the availability of food to gulls.

“If there are lessons to be learned from that, we will look into new techniques that may be more successful than those that are being used at the moment.”

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