Ministers declare war on plague of urban seagulls

Nets, spikes and culling don't work, so scientists are being asked to come up with a definitive solution

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They may provide the soundtrack for a trip to the seaside, but the invasion of gulls in towns and cities across the country has created such havoc that they are now routinely branded "rats with wings".

Now the Government is poised to launch a research project that will aim to find a permanent solution for the noise, mess, disease and aggression that blights ever more of urban Britain.

One bid for a study into the eating, nesting and breeding patterns of urban gulls was turned down in June last year, as the axe fell on swathes of government spending. However, the environment minister, Richard Benyon, has now agreed to "look at the research proposal from Bristol University to see if it could deliver new measures to tackle the problem" once and for all.

Total numbers of herring gulls, the most common bird traditionally seen at the seaside, are actually falling, down 60 per cent in the last 30 years. Numbers of the lesser black-backed gull have fallen by 30 per cent in 25 years. As a result, they have been identified as species in decline that need protection. However, in towns and cities their populations are soaring, though not enough to compensate for their overall decline.

Gulls began nesting on roofs in towns and cities in the 1940s, as the post-war boom led to the emergence of landfill sites, as increasing amounts of food were thrown away, coupled with a ban on burning rubbish.

"When I see photos of gulls on piles of rubbish, I don't see the gulls as the problem, it's the rubbish," said Tony Whitehead, a spokesman for the RSPB. "We have got to get a grip of the rubbish problem; it's as simple as that. And we need a more strategic approach to gull-proofing buildings. There is no point simply gull-proofing one or two buildings because they just move elsewhere."

As numbers have grown, a whole industry has emerged promising to drive the birds out of town. Netting for a large roof can cost up to £70,000. But spikes and tension wires on window ledges and plastic decoy birds such as eagles have done little to halt the surge in numbers.

In Bath, tourists and residents alike have been plagued by a colony which at one stage was growing by almost 25 per cent each year. The council spends £10,000 annually on fighting the problem, including using artificial eggs to convince the gulls to settle down and brood, and experimenting with stronger refuse bags.

Don Foster, the local MP who has lobbied the Government for more research, said: "The current methods simply are not working. The problems are getting worse, and unless we understand what it is that makes them so successful, we are not going to be able to find a solution."

The Bristol University research project, expected to last three years and to cost around £400,000, could begin as early as next February, with satellite tracking devices fitted to birds. The gull expert Peter Rock, who will head the research, said: "Gulls are at the high end of animal intelligence. In the past couple of decades the pest control industry has had a fair crack of the whip at offering possible solutions. The fact is they haven't worked. Either we understand what we are dealing with or we continue to spend loads of money to no effect."

But do not expect the team to recommend a cull. "We need to find solutions that are socially acceptable," Mr Rock adds. "Shooting in towns would require an army."

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