Landfill by Tim Dee Charles Foster
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.