My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
If you ever take a trip through Salt Lake City, Utah, you may notice a curious monument. Prominently situated outside the Salt Lake Assembly Hall, it looks a bit like Nelson’s column. But, instead of an heroic Admiral of the Fleet, this particular monument has a pair of bronze gulls perched on its top.
This is a commemoration of the so-called “miracle of the gulls”. Mormon folklore says that the first harvest of the Mormon settlers in Utah in 1848 was miraculously saved by a flock of gulls, which fed upon a ravenous swarm of insects that were devouring the precious crops. The authenticity of the story is dubious, particularly in relation to the role of the gulls, but the principle of a monument to birds is an appealing one. I have been reminded of it several times this week, for good reason.
Gulls are not universally loved. Far from being the subjects of monuments, they are amongst our most-maligned species. They are stereotyped as noisy and messy menaces, who will, given half a chance, snatch chips and hotdogs from the hands of unsuspecting seaside holidaymakers.
I’d argue that they are generally just misunderstood. If they are antisocial and dysfunctional, then it’s because we’ve made them this way. We drop food in our streets and the gulls have learned that, where there are humans, there is often the chance of an easy meal. It’s not really surprising that they occasionally decide to save time and try to grab a carbohydrate fix before it hits the pavement.
Peter Aldous, the Conservative MP for the coastal constituency of Waveney, has launched a crusade against the gulls. He paints a picture of Lowestoft, the largest town in his constituency, as one spray-painted white by airborne defecation, where it is impossible to park one’s car or hold a family barbecue without the aid of a gull-proof umbrella. I do wonder how the Suffolk Tourist Board feels about these comments? He’s not exactly selling the place, is he?
He has taken his battle to the Commons, hosting a debate at Westminster Hall, featuring a host of MPs anxious to vent their anger at...erm...gulls. En route, he encountered our own Paul Forecast, the RSPB’s Regional Director for Eastern England, on the Jeremy Vine Show (listen here, 1hr 39mins in).
Another Conservative MP, Mike Weatherley, who represents Hove and Portslade in Sussex and who has therefore, we assume, seen a gull or two in his time, pointed out that there are some people, himself included, in Brighton and Hove that rather like their gulls. As indeed they should, given that their local football team, Brighton & Hove Albion, are known as the Seagulls.
And it was with considerable pleasure that I listened to Jim Paice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, as he offered a defence of the ‘seagull’. He did not deny that in some parts of the country – mostly (but not always) coastal towns and villages – gulls have earned the moniker ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ But does this ‘nuisance’ behaviour mean we should be killing gulls? We think not, the law says not, and the Minister did a good job in outlining the reasons why not.
I would think, wouldn’t you, that our elected representatives have bigger things than this to worry about? And surely we should be looking at our own untidy behaviour, which encourages gulls into towns in the first place, rather than blaming the gulls for taking advantage of it?
As the Minister pointed out, there are many tried-and-tested deterrent measures out there. Only where there is a genuine risk posed by gulls to public health and safety can lethal methods of control be considered, and only then as a last resort.
Avoiding lethal control is particularly important when the species under consideration is a red-listed species of conservation concern. Despite increases in urban areas, the national population of herring gulls – the species most often implicated in these disputes – has in fact declined by more than 50% in the last 25 years, making it a Government priority for conservation action. Indiscriminate shooting is hardly conducive to the reversal of population declines. I was pleased to hear these sentiments echoed in the Minister’s speech.
Lowestoft, which Mr Aldous portrays as some guano-covered hellhole (it isn’t), is the UK’s most easterly town. It is home to our most easterly colony of kittiwakes, a gentle, almost dove-like, gull, itself in serious decline. These nest on a purpose-built wall near Lowestoft’s South Pier, after their original nesting site was demolished. Granted, they are noisy, but they give gulls a good name and, I’m sure, attract a number of visitors to Mr Aldous’ constituency. Assuming his description of his constituency HQ hasn’t put them all off.
I’d prefer us to be celebrating our gulls, like the people of Salt Lake City, rather than berating them. They’re not bad, they’re just misunderstood.
And all this commotion got me thinking about another “nuisance” species. Mr Paice was standing in for his colleague Richard Benyon MP, Minister for the Natural Environment and Fisheries. Mr Benyon is undertaking a review of the cormorant licensing regime – I wonder if we can hope for a similarly robust defence of our native wildlife there?
Gulls and cormorants are similar in that they have adapted to changes that we humans have made to our and their environment. They are now seen as a nuisance by some and in a few cases may actually be causing problems. I think how we respond to this is a test of a civilised society, do we manage the environment and the way we use it to minimise the problems or do we just try to bludgeon nature into submission by culling things? Good to see the Government taking the right approach for the gulls.