Land­fill by Tim Dee Charles Foster

CHARLES FOSTER

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Land­fill By Tim Dee Lit­tle Toller £16 Oldie price £14.24 inc p&p

Gulls hold up a mir­ror to us and are be­com­ing like us. No won­der we hate them. They are now where we were in that most cat­a­strophic phase of our own evo­lu­tion – the tran­si­tion from the Up­per Palae­olithic to the Ne­olithic, when we be­gan to set­tle and so to un­make our­selves; to be­have in ways for which we were (and are) phys­i­o­log­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally un­pre­pared. We’ll never re­cover; I doubt that the gulls will ei­ther.

Like us, they’ve moved from the places where they are truly at home. It’s con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mated that there are more than 100,000 pairs of ur­ban her­ring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls in Bri­tain. John Clare, who lived just 30 miles from the Wash, and was a su­perbly ob­ser­vant nat­u­ral­ist, never saw a her­ring gull. Now there are gen­er­a­tions of gulls that have never smelt the sea, just as there are gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren who have never seen a sheep and think that chick­ens come nuggeted.

As with us, there is lit­tle mix­ing be­tween ur­ban and non-ur­ban pop­u­la­tions. There’s apartheid. As with us, the ur­ban pop­u­la­tions hy­bridise, while the ru­ral pop­u­la­tions do not. As we did dur­ing the Ne­olithic revo­lu­tion, they have stopped re­volv­ing around the world: ur­ban gulls are dis­pens­ing with mi­gra­tion. Lesser black-backed gulls, for in­stance, used to mi­grate south af­ter breed­ing. Now they eat chips in Bris­tol in Jan­uary.

Like us, the ur­ban gulls cling pa­thet­i­cally to habits learned in their evo­lu­tion­ary prime that are poignantly ir­rel­e­vant to mod­ern liv­ing. In their wild state, her­ring gulls nest on cliffs and lesser black-backed gulls on dunes. On city roof tops the lesser black-backeds nest on the slopes, and the her­ring gulls wedge their nests against chim­ney stacks.

Like us, they don’t need to be smart or wise or to un­der­stand the sea­sons in or­der to feed: they can get a cou­ple of days’ food in a sin­gle swoop out­side a pizza joint. Their bod­ies, like ours, are full of her­bi­cides and flame re­tar­dants.

We’ve done this to them. We caused an ex­plo­sion in gull num­bers by dump­ing fish guts into the sea, and then we stopped the dump­ing, forc­ing gulls in­land to land­fill sites. Now we’re cov­er­ing over the sites to make ‘coun­try­side parks’, in­creas­ing again the pres­sure on the gulls. Their num­bers peaked in Bri­tain in around 1970. They fell by a third be­tween 2000 and 2011. Their fu­ture, like ours, is un­cer­tain.

Tim Dee fol­lows the gulls and their ob­ses­sive fol­low­ers, the ‘gullers’, onto the tips. The ar­che­typal tip is Pit­sea, on the Thames shore in Es­sex, where some of the rub­bish is so toxic that it melts the tyres of the ve­hi­cles. The char­ac­ter­is­tic finds, Dee tells us, are dil­does, grey elec­tri­cal ca­bling, soft toys and books by Ran­ulph Fi­ennes. The ‘shite hawks’, as the tip guys call the gulls, shriek and scrap for curry and hu­man hair.

I don’t share Dee’s fas­ci­na­tion

with the mo­tives of the gullers – a fas­ci­na­tion that dom­i­nates this book. It’s true that gull iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is fiendishly dif­fi­cult, and gull tax­on­omy no­to­ri­ously fluid. But the twitch­ers’ pre­sump­tion that a ‘species’ is a par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant cat­e­gory was rub­bished by Dar­win 150 years ago.

To be con­cerned about species is to fall for the an­thro­pocen­tric lie that hu­man timescales are mean­ing­ful in the evo­lu­tion­ary scheme of things. The Caspian gulls of to­day will be the blue-faced and pink-beaked and XCY­gened gulls of to­mor­row. So a gull has a long, dark, sec­ond pri­mary? Who cares? Tax­on­omy is im­por­tant as a tool in con­ser­va­tion. It pro­vides very ap­prox­i­mate in­dices of va­ri­ety, and thus of the de­struc­tion of va­ri­ety. But it doesn’t de­note any­thing fun­da­men­tal.

Twitch­ing is a colo­nial ac­tiv­ity. It’s about con­trol and dom­i­na­tion; about the tri­umph of the nerdish left brain. It should be re­placed by bird­watch­ing or, bet­ter still, be­ing watched by birds.

Dee’s book is as flawed as any book suf­fi­ciently am­bi­tious to be worth pub­lish­ing will nec­es­sar­ily be. I could have done with­out his ref­er­ences to Chekhov, Coet­zee, Beck­ett and Borges. They got in the way of the gulls. I wish that he’d not tried to be a prophet, philoso­pher or lit­er­ary critic, but had stuck to be­ing a bril­liantly ar­tic­u­late and re­flec­tive bird man.

But for all that (no, be­cause of the over-reach­ing ev­i­denced by those flaws), this is a true zoo­log­i­cal and an­thro­po­log­i­cal clas­sic. It is the best book on gulls ever writ­ten, and a chal­leng­ing med­i­ta­tion on our place in the nat­u­ral world.

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