Why do so many people fear gulls?
They drift across my memories of childhood summers, along with the impossibility of getting sand out of my socks, the probability of getting sand on my ice cream and the certainty that the tide will destroy my sandcastles before they are completed. Their effortless poise and power; their sociable, restless behaviour; their strange, somehow tragic, calls… gulls.
BIG, BAD BIRDS
I do not understand why they have become so hated, why so many people want them controlled, even exterminated. Why is it that people will boast of persuading a robin to feed from their hand but become furious when a gull does the same with practically no effort at all on our part, beyond being outside with some sandwiches? Why did people think it cute and clever when blue tits learned to peck through the tops of milk bottles to get food, but appalling when herring gulls started doing the same thing to rubbish sacks?
To be honest, there are some perfectly sensible answers to these questions: gulls are large and can be quite scary, robins are unlikely to vomit on you as they take food, and you probably do not plan on eating the food you give to smaller songbirds. But I find it interesting that people who would think it wrong to shoot or poison a buzzard feel that such measures are appropriate for gulls.
Yet buzzards are doing rather well, their numbers are increasing surprisingly fast. All our species of gulls, on the other hand, except the Mediterranean gull, are in serious decline. Herring gulls are now on the Red List, which means they are of “the highest conservation priority, requiring urgent action”.
I have a feeling that on some level we do not really like it when wild animals come and live in towns. Rural foxes are one of the most popular mammals in Britain; they are seen as both beautiful and sweet. You will meet people who deny hotly that foxes ever kill lambs or poultry (although, to my knowledge, this view is never held by people who keep sheep or hens). And yet urban foxes, besides being mangy and undernourished (while also mysteriously bigger than rural ones) are believed to prowl about looking for babies to maul. It isn’t ‘natural’ for foxes to live in cities and eat discarded hamburgers. Herring gulls made the same mistake after the Clean Air Act of 1956. Once refuse could no longer be burned, human food waste began to accumulate in dumps, luring herring gulls inland; scavenging is always easier than hunting. Once they had discovered this excellent source of food they also learned that house roofs are just as convenient for nest sites as rocky cliffs and harbour piers. It is not clear why this should be so objectionable; people love it when house martins build their nests under their guttering and spend good money on nestboxes for a variety of species. I know that gulls are large, messy and noisy, but so are the barn owls that nest in my shed and everyone would think it deplorable if I killed them.
What is so different about herring gulls? They are beautiful, high-flying, far-ranging, graceful and sociable. They are intelligent, good parents, adaptable and icons of the British coastal regions that are now available to be admired by people living in cities. These birds are in serious trouble and need support. If you don’t like them, simply eat your sandwiches in your car.
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Sara Maitland is a writer who lives in Dumfries and Galloway. Her works include A Book of Silence and Gossip from the Forest