Coming to a town near you... The birds

The huge growth of urban gull populations has led to a series of attacks on passers-by. Experts fear numbers are growing out of control - and it is far from a laughing matter, says Michael McCarthy

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It started off 40 years ago as a curiosity. Now it's getting beyond a joke. The urban seagull, that contradiction in terms, is well on the way to becoming a serious environmental and social problem, according to Britain's leading expert.

It started off 40 years ago as a curiosity. Now it's getting beyond a joke. The urban seagull, that contradiction in terms, is well on the way to becoming a serious environmental and social problem, according to Britain's leading expert.

This week a new spate of attacks on people in the street by rooftop-breeding gulls has been reported, from Monkseaton on Tyneside. They join a growing register of such incidents, mainly from coastal areas: residents are swooped at, defecated on and actually struck, with blood occasionally being drawn. Old people in particular, and young children, are sometimes afraid to go out.

It sounds half-sinister and half-comic.

But it is a serious issue, according to the ornithologist Peter Rock, not least because an uncontrolled population explosion means that the noise, the mess, and the airborne assaults that accompany urban gulls everywhere they nest will be features of all towns and cities in the country in 10 years' time.

Mr Rock, a former teacher from Bristol who is now Britain's only full-time urban gull expert, paints a picture of a natural phenomenon that began as interesting, but is now growing exponentially and out of control.

He estimates that, from virtually nothing half a century ago, there are now about 130,000 pairs of gulls breeding on rooftops and other parts of buildings across the country. That means, including unattached individuals, a total of about 400,000 birds. But that is nothing to what is coming, he says, for Mr Rock also estimates that this population is now growing at 20 per cent a year, and the prospect of 800,000 gulls living in Britain's towns and cities in the next decade is a very real one.

"Even if it turns out to be only half of that figure, it will be a truly massive number of birds," Mr Rock said. "It has the potential to be a really serious social and environmental problem, but nobody knows what to do about it." In fact, local authorities across Britain are just waking up to the fact that something serious will have to be done, and last November a number of them came together to hold their first conference on urban gulls in Gloucester. They decided that proper scientific research on the problem was urgently needed, a decision with which Mr Rock fervently agrees.

Two species of quite large gulls form the great bulk of the urban population: the lesser black-backed gull and the herring gull, which are closely related. The lesser black-backs generally outnumber the herring gulls by about four to one.

A few gulls have always nested on roofs and other man-made structures, but until the 1950s their numbers were minimal, and they were usually found only in fishing ports, Mr Rock says.

Then came two developments that opened the door to a widespread urban gull life: the Clean Air Act of 1956 and the throwaway society.

The Clean Air Act meant that people largely stopped burning their rubbish, as they had always done - dustbins were so-called because they contained the dust and ashes of household fires. They began sending organic instead of inert material to rubbish tips, which also were banned from burning waste, and increased significantly in number.

The result was a huge increase in food availability around towns and cities for foraging gulls, which enabled them to achieve massive breeding success. This was compounded by the arrival of takeaway food, with the huge amount of thrown-away, half-eaten burgers, sandwiches and pizzas giving the gull population another gigantic food boost.

Once a few gulls started to breed on urban buildings, they quickly took to it, says Mr Rock. "Buildings are not really very different from islands with cliffs, and they have a number of serious advantages from a gull's point of view. There are no predators; there's hardly any disturbance; and the ambient temperature in towns and cities is three to four degrees higher than the surrounding countryside, which means that urban gulls can start breeding earlier than gulls in wild colonies.

"Furthermore, having street lighting means that gulls can go and feed at night as well as during the day, on whatever food people have thrown down after a good night's drinking."

Mr Rock instances his own study area, the Severn estuary, as a perfect example of the massive gull population shift that is taking place from wild colonies to urban ones. In the past, he says, gulls only bred on two islands in the estuary, Steepholm and Flatholm, but now the urban gulls outnumber the wild breeders by three to one.

The first gulls bred in Gloucester in 1967 - three pairs of lesser black-backs, while the first gulls bred in Bristol in 1972 - a pair of herring gulls. "When I started studying urban gulls in Bristol in 1980 there were about 100 pairs, 50 of each species," he says, "Now there are nearly 2,000 pairs."

Gloucester now has nearly 2,000 pairs of gulls, and Cardiff has more than 3,000 pairs. Other cities such as Aberdeen and Glasgow also now have gull populations in the thousands; and lesser black-backs are now nesting in Birmingham, almost as far from the sea as it is possible to get in Britain.

Mr Rock sympathises with the local residents who live beneath these colonies.

"People have three main complaints," he says. "Noise, mess and attacks. And the attacks can indeed be serious, and at a personal level, really quite frightening."

Even, in some cases, fatal. In July 2002 Wilfred Roby, a retired ambulance driver in North Wales, died after an encounter with the gulls. He had been cleaning bird droppings from his garage roof when he disturbed some nesting birds. They attacked him and he suffered a heart attack.

There are other stories of people having to have stitches, of nightmares that refuse to go away.

In Scotland two years ago there was a run of gull attacks. An unnamed security guard at Western General Hospital was attacked in the centre of Edinburgh by a herring gull, and was given emergency treatment.

There were attacks in towns and villages of the Aberdeenshire coast, and Lossiemouth in Morayshire. Fergus Ewing, then Scottish National Party MSP for Inverness East, was also threatened by a swooping gull while out jogging.

The attacks nearly always come from breeding birds which have young chicks, and see humans as potentially dangerous intruders who need to be seen off. There are four stages, Mr Rock says. The first is a warning call - the so-called "gag" call - which few people would recognise. The second is a low pass, and the third can be defecation which is often surprisingly accurate.

"Then if you still don't get the message, there is a full attack, which is always from behind. When an adult bird which weighs a kilogram swoops down on you at 40 miles an hour and rakes the back of your head with its feet it can be a very unpleasant experience."

What can be done about the problem? Mr Rock dismisses out of hand any ideas of mass culling. "Poisoning is out of the question," he says. "All the chemicals required are illegal."

Shooting is even more of a potential nightmare. "In Aberdeen, say, you've got about 3,500 breeding pairs, and if you take them together with the non-breeding birds, which as a rule of thumb are equal in number, you've got about 10,000 gulls in the city.

"You'd have to organise an army to shoot them, not just a posse. Who's going to sanction that? What if someone was hit by a stray shot? Nothing of this kind would ever have happened before. It's ridiculous even to think of it."

The ultimate solution, he says, can only involve choking off the food supplies that are enabling the gulls' populations to mushroom so spectacularly. But to do this, accurate scientific research must be carried out on where exactly their food is being obtained.

Mr Rock hopes a forthcoming research project, in which he is involved with Bristol University and the British Trust for Ornithology, will begin to give an accurate picture of urban gulls' feeding habits by attaching "data loggers" to the birds, which will record their position through every second of the day.

"We have to get the research done," he says. 'But we're in for a long haul. If there was an easy solution or a quick fix, we would have already found it."

ATTACK 1

A retired ambulance driver died from a heart attack after being attacked by gulls in his back garden. Wilfred Roby, 80, was cleaning bird droppings from his garage roof when he disturbed nesting birds, provoking the herring gulls to fly at him and forcing him to climb back down his ladder. Mr Roby, from Benllech, Anglesey, in north Wales, suffered a heart attack in his garden shortly afterwards, and died later in hospital.

ATTACK 2

An 86-year-old woman was attacked so savagely by a gull that she had to have stitches in her head, and was too frightened to go home. Grace Amos, from Seaford, East Sussex, was walking to the post office to collect her pension when the bird attacked. She stumbled to a neighbour's house, where a friend called an ambulance. She suffered nightmares after the attack and stayed with relatives until the bird was destroyed.

ATTACK 3

A primary school in Troon, Ayrshire, had to use hawks to chase away gulls that were dive-bombing children at break times. The birds tried to grab sweets and crisps from the children and built nests on staff members' cars. Several staff members were attacked when walking through the school grounds. The hawks were kept tethered by their handler, and were released only when all children were inside the school.

ATTACK 4

A grandmother was taken to hospital after suffering several injuries, and weeks of intimidation, from the same bird. Marie Munro, 65, was stalked by a gull whenever she left her home in Weymouth, Dorset. She activated her personal alarm but the bird attacked both her and her husband, Len. The bird swooped into Mrs Munro's face and knocked her over. She damaged a bone in her foot and tore her tendons in the fall.

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