“Gullgate” – What really needs culling?

*Sorry, this started as a brief response and expanded into a long read. So if you make it to the end and agree, I’ll appreciate sharing through social media etc.

In defence of gulls

You have probably seen a lot of scare stories in the media recently about the ‘threat’ seagulls pose. To us, babies, to our pets, to our barbecues. This has inevitably led to calls for a cull (because that’s the solution to everything in the eyes of some people).

A seagull where it belongs

A seagull where it belongs

As with all such scares, the problem is that wildlife dares to be wild. It escapes the narrow boundaries we set it, and then becomes ‘a threat’. Seagulls are a prime example. Much of the hysteria now centres on how seagulls ‘are supposed’ to be at the seaside, at the coast, on cliffs. Not in towns and cities. In towns and cities they are a threat to ‘our garden birds’.

I’ve mentioned before my hatred of the term “garden birds”, because it implies there is a set of species that just exist for our gardens. But let’s be clear, any bird in your garden, be it a robin, a blackbird, a red kite, or a black-headed gull, is there because we changed the landscape. We moved food and resources from one place to another. We created, unintentionally, a more suitable habitat for the birds.

An urbanised winter gull

An urbanised winter gull

It’s also worth noting that there is, in fact, no such thing as a ‘seagull’. Look in any proper bird book and you will find numerous gulls. No seagulls. Because they have never been purely birds of the coastline. Many species move inland, especially to breed. As do some coastal waders like Oystercatchers. If, after moving inland, you discover life is a bit easier there, why not stay? No depleted fishing stocks to worry about on a human-made landfill site. Just lots and lots of easily accessible food.

A beautiful gull

A beautiful gull

Food is really the critical factor here. The key component in most of the scare stories involve the presence of food. Attacks come when the birds are trying to take food. But wild birds are naturally cautious and timid, why have they become so bold?

I mentioned this last week in ‘cuter’ context. Birds become tame when we make them associate us with food, not danger. For gulls, at the coast or in towns and cities, we are just moving food banks. Why? Because we are hugely wasteful, dirty, and messy.

Sometimes it’s unintentional, even unconscious. Pass through any major town or city and by late afternoon tiny wastebins are overflowing with discarded food. Plus the aforementioned landfill sites. All that presupposes we even make it to the bin, but lots of our waste just gets tossed on the streets with no real regard for the environment around us. It’s someone else’s problem.

How much worse would it be without gulls, corvids, rats, and other ‘pests’ clearing up after us? Should we not see these animals as a part of an ecosystem we have created? In parts of India, a local name for Kites translates as ‘sanitation worker’, because they appreciate that the birds are actually doing a valuable job.

The cold dead eyes of a killer?

The cold dead eyes of a killer?

There is the law of unintended consequence to our conscious actions too. Tourists at seaside towns love throwing the odd chip to a gull, watching them beg, watching them catch it in the air (and there is a wonderful irony that the same sections of the press now condemning the gulls, are the same that condemned local councils that tried to ban feeding gulls chips). Generations of gulls have been raised seeing this as a regular food source. We created that dependence, but our reaction to this inevitable relationship is to round on the birds, not on ourselves. The birds are not the guilty party.

The fundamental truth of this current wave of gullgate horror stories is exactly the same as we have seen with magpies, red kites, sea eagles, buzzards, foxes, and anything else that certain groups see as an inconvenience. Rather than address the root causes in our own behaviour, we must instead turn on the wildlife that has merely had the audacity to adapt to our dominance of the landscape.

It’s also no coincidence that these stories appear in exactly the same papers, take exactly the same tone, use exactly the same exaggerated untruths (no babies are under threat from gulls), and propose the exact same solutions. It’s because they are ultimately owned and run by the landowners and shooters that want to sanitise the world for their own benefit.

So, to answer my original question, what needs culling?

Our waste culture for starters. Let’s have smaller portion sizes at the chippy, so we don’t end up throwing loads away. Let’s buy less food, and sell less food, and see less food going to landfill. Let’s have wastebins that have sufficient capacity for the waste we produce, and more of them, and greater enforcement of littering laws.

Instead of running scare stories, let’s have more pieces that educate, that explain that we cannot have it both ways. If we feed birds, birds will see us as a source of food.

Instead of turning to death as a first resort in such times, let’s instead turn to life. Let’s vastly expand marine conservation zones and no-catch areas, ensuring fish stocks replenish and gulls can feed at sea. After all, let’s not forget most gull species are actually in decline for all this talk of culls.

If there is a real horror story in here, that’s it. We are actually having “a big conversation” about killing a species that is dying anyway. Let’s cull that for starters.

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2 Responses to “Gullgate” – What really needs culling?

  1. Very thoughtful and hope we can all be more educated about the complex problems our own species has created.

  2. Pingback: An invasion of killer snakes? The Express is at it again… | Why watch wildlife?

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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