Newcastle’s urban kittiwakes
Images of kittiwakes getting caught in building nets made headlines this summer,shining the spotlight on the north-east’s unique urban colony of these marine gulls.
Why seabirds nesting on Tyneside are ruffling feathers
The kittiwakes of the Tyne Bridge arrived in Newcastle and Gateshead’s quayside district in the 1960s, drifting upriver from foothold colonies at South Shields, where the river opens to the North Sea. The quayside was a forlorn place then: Newcastle was nearing the end of its industrial heyday and the Tyne’s years as a key manufacturing and trade artery almost at an end. These neat white gulls, usually cliff-nesters, made homes on the rundown Gateshead buildings and on the iconic parabolic arch of the steel-framed road bridge. Since then, the quayside beneath the kittiwakes’ nests has undergone a regeneration programme ushering in a new focus on culture, leisure and tourism. The Baltic Contemporary Arts Centre – formerly the Baltic flour mill – and the Sage Gateshead music centre have brought cutting-edge culture to the postindustrial Tyneside landscape.
The kittiwakes are still here – perhaps 2,500 of them, all along the Tyne – but not everyone is happy, and some quayside buildings have been covered in anti-bird netting. This summer the distressing sight of kittiwakes – often juveniles, handsomely marked in black and white – trapped or dead in loops of sagging netting went viral on social media. A petition swiftly followed, the issue was debated in news articles and passions ran high. The fire brigade was even called out to rescue tangled birds.
Nesting 15km or so from the coast, these kittiwakes constitute the farthest-inland colony of the species, which has a huge circumpolar range. All around the quayside each spring and summer, the birds crowd onto ledges, calling ‘kitti-waaa, kitti-waaa’ and whitening the metal girders and stonework with their guano.
“The buildings replicate the ledges that they would use on a cliff, and the Tyne provides great access down the river and out to sea,” says Helen Quayle of the RSPB. “As far as kittiwakes are concerned, the bridge is a cliff, but in a different setting. It looks quite different to us, but it provides most of the same features.”
Helen is part of the Tyne Kittiwakes Partnership, a coalition of conservationists and council authorities that have taken up the kittiwakes’ cause. “We try to work together to raise awareness and safeguard the nest sites,” she explains. “And to increase our understanding – monitoring has been taking place for 25 years now.”
In 2017, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded the status of the black-legged kittiwake from Least Concern to Vulnerable on its ‘Red
The buildings replicate ledges on a cliff and the Tyne provides access downriver and out to sea.
List’. Numbers have plummeted, possibly as a result of declining availability of sandeels, the birds’ main prey. Some kittiwake colonies, especially on Scottish islands, have collapsed; the population along England’s east coast however, seems to be holding steady. In fact the Tyne colony is growing.
An urban habitat
“How big the colony can get is obviously limited by how many ledges there are in the city,” says Derek Hilton-Brown, an ecologist at Newcastle City Council. “Kittiwakes are not keen to go much further into the city or much further upstream. They seem almost to have reached the carrying capacity of the buildings.”
Urban wildlife, from foxes to ring-necked parakeets, has a perennial problem: when it gets too successful, its habitat – previously so rich in opportunity – turns hostile. Kittiwakes are no exception. In Newcastle and Gateshead, the interests of the colony have begun to butt up against the interests of the human population. The yawping noise, the spattering excrement: for many, these things are a price worth paying for sharing the city with these graceful birds. But for others, it’s a call to arms.
“They’re a tricky subject, kittiwakes,” Derek admits. “They’re like Marmite – you either hate them or love them. Many businesses on the quayside aren’t keen on kittiwakes. They’re noisy, they’re messy, they’re smelly… but then so are most of the area’s stag and hen nights, and nobody turns those away.”
Unsurprisingly, some businesses have taken steps to deter the kittiwakes. One is the application of ‘fire gel’, which to the UV vision of kittiwakes, pigeons and other birds resembles flames. “Birds will completely desert a habitat, even one they have been using for years,” claims the product’s advertising blurb. Its effects, however, wear off after two or three years. A less high-tech solution is to string up netting across potential nest sites. This is where the trouble in Newcastle began.
“The problem with netting is, on a tall building, it’s hard to maintain,” says Helen Quayle. “When it becomes slack or worn it’s more likely that birds may try to nest and they can get tangled in it.” The text of the petition against the netting, launched with the backing of Chris Packham and others, noted: “Whilst the theoretical justification of the netting has been to protect buildings, significantly more damage has been done by the installation of the nets than was ever caused by the birds themselves.”
“There’s not much we can really do to stop people doing it,” Derek admits. “Effectively, it’s protecting their building – there can be a lot of damage from bird muck and stuff. The main issue is protecting doorways, and people coming in and out.”
The council, together with the Tyne Kittiwake Partnership, works hard to encourage a more positive attitude towards the Tyne birds. One common (and damaging) misconception is that kittiwakes will follow the lead of herring- and lesser black-backed gulls and become waterfront marauders, plundering waste-bins, stealing
The interests of the colony have begun to butt up against those of humans.
chips, terrorising promenaders. In fact, the Tyne kittiwakes behave much as kittiwakes have always done – the sand-eel is their food, and their feeding grounds are the Dogger region of the North Sea rather than the Biffa wheelie-bin round the back of the Clayton Street Chippy.
What is also worth remembering is that the kittiwakes here are a seasonal phenomenon. “People think they’re here all year round,” says Derek. “But there’s a good few months when it’s quiet and peaceful.” Outside the March–August breeding season this most pelagic of gulls is once again skimming the wave-tops of the open ocean. Many in Newcastle and Gateshead do see the kittiwakes in a positive light. “My response to the kittiwakes is one of awe and unanswered questions,” enthuses local naturalist James Common. “Why are these birds here? What makes the Tyne suitable for them? The kittiwakes are a familiar part of life in the city and bring a touch of the ‘wild’ into the centre. To me, the sight, sound and smell of the colony evokes remote, inaccessible places, such as the Farne Islands.”
Can there, realistically, be peace between urban kittiwakes and the humans who live among their noisy colonies? Evidence from elsewhere suggests there can. Photographer Andrew Mason travelled to the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off the Norway coast, and saw how the lives of kittiwakes there are enmeshed with those of local people.
“There are urban kittiwake colonies throughout Lofoten,” he says. “You find them on buildings in small coastal villages, as well as on the surrounding cliffs. The birds are equally happy nesting on traditional red-and-yellow painted wooden buildings and the more industrial buildings in harbours. There are even nests on windows in the centre of villages.”
Andrew acknowledges that these fishing villages are a far cry from the newly gentrified Newcastle-Gateshead quayside – indeed, he believes that Lofoten’s historic fishing culture has nourished a better appreciation of seabirds like the kittiwake.
There are still lessons to be learned here. “Businesses in north-east England could start to promote the kittiwakes as an internationally important breeding colony,” he suggests. “By engaging people and helping them to understand how important the Tyne colony is, this could help to alleviate the angst.”
Even those who remain hostile towards the quayside kittiwakes should perhaps appreciate that decades of colonisation can’t be undone by a snap of the council’s fingers. “If you were to displace birds off the Tyne Bridge, say, then that’s more than 1,300 birds that would be looking for a new home in the city,” says Helen Quayle. “They’re urban-nesting birds. They’re not suddenly going to nest on cliffs – this is their home.”
“Developers and building owners are quick to say: ‘Get it all netted’,” adds Derek Hilton-Brown. “But they don’t realise that that’s just displacing the problem. Where do the birds go? If you’re going to try to move them to another site, you’d need plenty of time, several years… it’d be a gradual thing.”
The Tyne kittiwakes aren’t there to cause trouble, or, for that matter, to draw in eco-tourists or excite urban birdwatchers. They’ve found a place that fits their way of living, and they’re making the best of it, indifferent, by and large, to the humans bustling beneath. But it would be a shame if we were to return their indifference: these are wonderful birds, delicately built but fiercely resilient, their colonies as vivid and full of raucous life as any seaport city.
FIND OUT MORE Natural History Society of Northumbria: nhsn.ncl.ac.uk/activities/conservation-research/tyne-kittiwakes
They’ve found a place that fits their way of living and they’re making the best of it.
From the kittiwake’s perspective, a tall urban tower block has many of the same features as a shoreline cliff face.
Above: The fate of kittiwakes who found themselves entangled in netting used to protect buildings prompted outrage on social media. Some birds were rescued by firefighters, however many others were not so lucky.
Kittiwake colonies have made themselves at home amidst disused buildings on the Norwegian archipelago of Lofoten.