Town tormented by yob birds calls in the Seagull Terminator

'I'm no vigilante,' says the Newquay hitman. 'But they hit you on the head and crap on you. I'm a big man but they're scary.' Julia Stuart reports

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Silently, with an airgun over one shoulder, the hitman climbed up a ladder towards the roof of the house. The tormentor fixed in the gun sight, the marksman slowly squeezed the trigger. A body, minus its head, dropped to the lawn.

This scene in Newquay last week is being repeated in gardens up and down the country as people take up arms to protect themselves from seagulls. Once a cheerful reminder of seaside holidays, the birds increasingly think nothing of attacking humans and drawing blood.

But now residents of gull-infested towns have had enough. Unable to sleep because of ear-piercing dawn squawks, too terrified to sit in their own gardens while having lunch and frightened for the safety of their children, they have decided to take action. Sick of what they see as inaction by their local councils they are either mounting their roofs armed with an airgun or asking someone else to do the honours.

Richard Segar, 52, who owns a roofing company in Newquay, has shot problem gulls for both homeowners and business people. "I'm not acting as a vigilante. I'm only acting to protect my employees because we're getting more and more aggressive attacks," he said. "They can strike you on the top of your head and they'll shit on you. If a bird is there and we can't work on the roof I have to shoot it and if there are eggs there or a nest I will take it off the roof. How else do I deal with it? I can't catch them. I'm a big guy and I find them scary."

One of his customers found seagulls nesting on her roof so stressful she had to see her doctor. "She couldn't go in her garden and enjoy a barbecue because the moment she went outside the seagulls attacked her. She couldn't get her out of the house," said Mr Segar. "I know many people who shoot seagulls if they've got a problem. I don't want to shoot them. I want the council to solve the problem prior to it occurring. They've had 37 complaints this year from people being attacked by seagulls and that's just people who have bothered to complain."

Frightened tourists in Newquay have been taking cover in telephone boxes at lunch-time. "You can't eat food outside without being attacked," the roofer continued. "My four-year-old granddaughter was attacked about a month ago when she was eating some sandwiches. A seagull came from behind and landed on top of her head and snatched it out of her hand.

"My neighbour lost her pasty on the beach on Saturday. Loads of people lose their pasties."

Another Newquay businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted that he had also shot seagulls. "They need to be culled," he said. "They are dangerous and aggressive. I've seen children being attacked for their ice creams. One bird I was asked to shoot had smashed the double-glazed window of a house and was trying to get at the dog inside. Four days ago I stepped out of my van and got attacked by three gulls."

Marie Munro, 67, who was in plaster for six weeks following an attack, said locals in her home town of Weymouth, Dorset, were also gunning down seagulls. "Every so often you see dead and wounded gulls lying around. People are being driven by desperation," she said. "But what do you do when your neighbours' gulls are making your life hell? I can't blame them because we are absolutely desperate."

Under certain conditions, shooting seagulls is not illegal. All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. However, every year the Government issues a general licence for people to kill herring gulls, to protect human health and safety.

The British seagull population increased dramatically following the 1956 Clean Air Act which prevented rubbish being burnt on tips, thus providing gulls with an unlimited food source. They outgrew their natural colonies and began nesting in towns and cities. With no predators, plenty of food and street lighting that enabled them to feed at night they flourished.

Many techniques employed by councils to get rid of them fail, according to Peter Rock, Europe's leading expert on urban gulls. Sterilising eggs by coating them in white mineral oil doesn't prevent the birds from breeding the following year. Plastic owls intended to scare them simply act as a perch. Electronic scaring devices work well at airports, but not in cities.

"Never mind how many residents take up arms," he said, "there's a mighty job to be done if they think they are going to make a difference to the situation." Last year there were between 120,000 and 190,000 pairs nesting on rooftops in the UK and around 220,000 pairs in the wild. "It won't be very long before urban gulls outnumber wild gulls."

Menace In The Skies

* The first birds seen behaving aggressively in Hitchcock's The Birds are seagulls.

* There are usually four stages to a seagull attack. The first is a "gagaga" call; the second is a low pass; the third is the release of the contents of their bowels. The last is a full-on attack.

* The largest urban gull colonies are in Cardiff and Aberdeen with 3,500 pairs.

* A lesser black-backed gull can live up to 34 years.

* The acidic composition of guano corrodes car paintwork.

* In 2003 Aberdeen City Council's SNP group leader, Kevin Stewart, suggested that seagulls be put on the Pill.

* Urban gulls breed at a younger age than those in the wild.

* Jean Smith, 60, from Burntisland, Fife, escaped being given an Asbo when she agreed not to feed seagulls.

* A gull flew 2,800 miles from Gambia to England.

* Around a fifth of adult seaguls no longer migrate.

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