Sara Mait­land

Why do so many peo­ple fear gulls?

Countryfile Magazine - - Month In The Country - Illustration: Lynn Hatz­ius

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”.

UNNATURAL HABI­TATS

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.

Have your say What do you think about the is­sues raised here? Write to the ad­dress on page three or email editor@coun­try­file.com

Sara Mait­land is a writer who lives in Dum­fries and Galloway. Her works in­clude A Book of Si­lence and Gos­sip from the For­est

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