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.
Last Friday, the Prime Minister David Cameron called for a big conversation around gulls following highly publicised tragic incidents involving the loss of pets to these birds. Since then, there has been a huge amount of media attention on the relationship between gulls and humans.
As I wrote in an article in the Telegraph today (see here), I think the PM's right. There should be a conversation too, but like any conversation around a highly-charged issue it should bring together everyone in the search for a solution, while recognising there will be no quick fixes – this is going to be a long haul.
Herring gull in close up by my colleague Grahame Madge rspb-images.com
The ultimate aim of any conversation and subsequent action should focus on defusing the tensions between gulls and people in communities across the UK. Gulls should be revered for being part of the seaside experience, rather than being demonised for being troublesome neighbours.
The numbers of gulls nesting on roofs in town and cities has been increasing since it was first recorded over 70 years ago. However, among the flurry of wings and constant calling, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that gull numbers in the UK are falling alarmingly. The herring gull – the familiar ‘seagull’ – is declining since the 1970s and even since the year 2000, the UK has lost almost one third of nesting herring gulls.
Yes numbers are rising in towns and cities (in places like Tynemouth where I shall be at the weekend), and even inland, but overall populations are crashing as their natural colonies on cliffs and rocky islands haemorrhage so quickly that they are in genuine need of conservation help. Herring gulls feature on the Red List of the Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK. As a nesting bird, the herring gull is confined to Europe, and within the European Union, the UK has the largest population (see here). The latest (June 2015) assessment of the status of birds in Europe and the European Union (see here) has listed the herring gull as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN’s EU red list, meaning there is a threat of extinction.
Whether we like it or not we have a special responsibility for the herring gull.
Listen to any radio phone in or scroll through any comments section on news articles and you will find many requests for a gull cull. Let’s think about that for a moment. With many pairs of herring gull in the UK nesting on someone’s roof, that’s a big and expensive programme that would result in the partial eradication of a threatened species, a measure which I would suggest would be unethical, unpalatable and probably illegal.
If this isn’t a good enough reason to think again, there is another reason: it also wouldn’t work.
Gulls are choosing to nest on our buildings for two principal reasons: access to high-rise real estate on which to rear their families above streets where these quick-witted scavengers can find an easy meal. Simply reducing their numbers in urban localities would create a vacuum, sucking more birds into problem areas to be controlled in the next culling program. This is insanity. You’d have to cull on a wide geographic scale year after year for the long term, which is both unsupportable and impractical.
As a society, we have to have to turn the conversation towards long-term evidence based measures which will help reduce conflict. Then we can genuinely start to tackle the problem in ways which don’t endanger a threatened species and which set us on a better path to improving society's relationship with one of our most iconic and charismatic birds.
To this end, yesterday I wrote to Defra and Natural England to propose a National Gull Summit, bringing together expertise from the wildlife sector, academics, local and national government to consider the issue and make proposals; to look not only at urban areas, but also how we can best look after our wider marine environment to support healthy seabird populations.
This latter area is hugely important. The underlying issue we must address is that our seas and the wildlife which depend on them are in deep trouble. Delivering measures such as a coherent network of Marine Protected Areas will be a vital part of finding the right solution.
There’s so much we need to learn about these birds, and this is a real opportunity to look at how we can live comfortably with our wild companions, and do the best for both birds and people.
Avenue Wild has it right when he highlights the ridiculous number of (non-native) domestic cats that are killing our wildlife - a far more important driver of wildlife decline than most others. Time we had national small mammal, amphibian, reptile and songbird days to keep things in real perspective. Their losses to cats number in the tens of millions, annually. And these are our pets for goodness sake, not adaptable wild animals exploiting novel nesting opportunities or food resources.
Thanks for your comment, Avenue Wild.
Agree its important to keep things in perspective, especially with hen harrier day coming up.
People feeding gulls almost certainly has a role to play in all this, although its relative importance will probably vary from place to place. Would certainly need to be part of any discussion on the matter.
Surely this is a job for local authorities to make it an offense to feed gulls and educate people not to eat in the streets where gulls are present. This is a story that will disappear within the next couple of weeks and there are more important issues to be dealing with. Let's talk about the ridiculous number of domestic cats that are killing our wildlife, they are everywhere. Lets talk about Hen Harriers and Grouse Moor owners killing our Raptors and destroying our uplands ecosystems. Let's talk about Fracking on SSSi sites and in National Parks. It's a sad situation that someone has lost a loved pet but let's get things in perspective please.
Whilst I don't support a cull, I do think more needs to be done to address the taming of gulls by 'negligent' locals and tourists who encourage gulls with food. It is the lack of fear of humans and this close encountering that is a clear problem. People ignore requests to not feed birds.
In hotspots where gulls snatch food from people, unless locals stop feeding the gulls by hand despite requests, those people either need to be taken through the courts, or made to see the errors of their actions.
Nothing that anyone has written on this page addresses that. Hopefully, a gull summit will be successful. However, some people are thick skinned and don't realise hand feeding gulls is in no one's interest.
Spot on, Martin. It's funny that the national media are making so much fuss about the gulls considering pets were also lost to fox hunting - something certain papers seem to want to see a return of.
Here's Aberdeen Football Club's comprehensive approach to their gull issue. Using pest controllers, hawks to disperse the birds and tapes of distress calls (as used on airfields by Bird Control Units). Interesting mixture of techniques, see here - www.scotsman.com/.../aberdeen-fc-take-steps-to-tackle-seagull-problem-1-3840409
Well done, Martin and RSPB in taking the initiative - and hopefully riding the media scrum to open up a wider conservation discussion - about the only way to get any interest in wildlife from Defra and the PM - and, as I suggested on your last blog, shining a light on some of the impacts of 'austerity'.
Red Kite is absolutely right about peoples complete detachment from wildlife - gulls are about the closest they come to wildlife that doesn't simply run away. As an (ex) ringer its surprising the number of times I've helped out with birds where they shouldn't (and usually don't want to !) be - here in Bristol there are young gulls on the streets, obviously off the nest before they should be, and I wonder whether the superb army of very skilled volunteers, especially the BTO ringers, we have in this country might be able to help out with distressed/errant birds.
Excellent blog Martin, I agree with everything you say. It is another example of the fault being with man and not with the gulls. It is very probable that because the gulls can't find enough food at sea they have move inland in search of it. If the Government did its job properly (which it doesn't) and established sufficient and well protectd marine conservation zones to improve the serverely degraded condition of our seas around the UK then more gulls would no doubt remain in their natural habitat.
Secondly it is also an example of how people have become so divorced from the natural world. Predation is one of its features. Most animals and birds feed (or predate) on other animals. A robin predates earth worms but you don't hear too many complaints about that. Hopefully gulle predating family pets is and will be a very rare occurence but it is always possible, that is nature and people must learn to understand that. One thing is for sure, it is not the fault of the gulls and therefore no way should they be culled.