Deborah Orr: The sinister development behind the gull-killer and the recycling refusenik

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The Independent Online

Brian Boughton, Dartmouth's answer to the ancient mariner, and Donna Challice, Exeter's front-runner for world's stroppiest landfill enthusiast, may not appear to have much in common. Boughton has just been taken to court by the RSPCA for shooting a herring gull and hanging it from a tree. Challice is just about to be prosecuted by her local council for ignoring all imprecations to place only paper, cans and plastic in her recycling bin. The troubles the two face, though, have the same vast socio-economic cause, that towers implacably over local attempts to curb their tiny individual rebellions.

Challice refuses to understand that there is far more garbage produced in Britain than there are smelly holes to bury it in. She is an all-too-recognisable type - the sort of person who becomes rebellious when confronted with any form of authority, largely because they feel so powerless themselves. Challice probably thinks she's making a stand for the little people, if she thinks much at all, when her actions are actually destroying the decent efforts of her neighbours. Her binful of mixed-up leavings contaminates a whole lorry-load and condemns it to landfill. Nonetheless, she thinks it is everyone but her who is "petty".

Boughton's problems have a similar source. He understands all too well that gulls are finding slim pickings hunting the overfished seas, and are turning instead to scavenging from the humans with so much food to throw away. Mr Boughton's home, on the Dartmouth waterfront, has been considered for a good decade now as the next best thing to a cliff. He has the noise, the nests, the aggressive parental behaviour and the guano to prove it. The birds, he says, have made his house into a scene of "mediaeval squalor".

This man's first instinct was to turn to the council for help. He asked them to bring in a bye-law banning tourists from feeding gulls, and to start providing gull-proof bins and bin-bags. He started an anti-gull pressure group and enlisted many neighbours. He even stood for the council himself, on an anti-gull ticket. None of it solved his problem. When a gull shat through their window on to his wife's food, he finally took action. Obtaining a copy of a permit stating that the law against killing birds could be waived in the event of their causing a threat to public health, he shot one and hung it in his garden to scare off the others. His plea of mitigation was not accepted by the courts.

Boughton is not alone. All over Britain, urban gulls are encroaching further and further into human lives. Two people have suffered fatal heart attacks at the shock of being dive-bombed, while knocked-over adults have sustained significant injuries. Schoolchildren and pets have been attacked. It is now common for companies to hire hawks to move the birds on. It is estimated that about 40,000 gulls live on British roofs, with the population expanding at a rate of 20 per cent each year. Unbelievably, though, RSPB figures suggest that even so, the most common gulls are in decline as their colonies at sea simply vanish.

Shooting the birds, of course, is not the solution. Restoring their traditional food sources, while restricting their contemporary ones, might be. Recycling, preferable as it is to leaving useful stuff to rot, is not going to help. The aim must be to diminish the amount of garbage we generate. Food so cheap and plentiful that we throw it away is of course an affront to the starving. But it is also a distortion of the food chain, of which the gulls are only the most visible symptom.

Also this week, the nation was treated to pictures of a stream running orange with concentrate for Sunny Delight, an unappetising drink sold in plastic bottles and marketed at children. It killed not just one fish in the stream, but all of them. At the time of writing, no prosecutions had been announced. It also came to light this week that the UK's top five polluting companies produced more carbon dioxide emissions than all the motor cars in the country all year. Lavish providers of cheap, highly packaged, grossly processed, food such as Tesco, Walkers, Unilever, Kellogg's, Allied Bakeries, Nestlé and Cadbury Trebor Bassett, it was reported, were among those that emitted more than 100,000 tonnes of CO 2 in 2004.

Maybe if they were forced to dispose of the rubbish and the vermin their bloated products produce, their profits and emissions would be smaller. They haven't even been asked to think about what they're doing though, let alone prosecuted.

You don't divorce the in-laws

Jennifer Aniston has moved gracefully on from her relationship with Brad Pitt. But she's not quite so willing, it is reported, to move on from her relationship with her former mother-in-law, Jane Pitt. The two women remain close, much to Brad's understandable unease. Good for both of them, I say. They'll probably have to give up their friendship eventually, but in trying to hang on to each other, they've got the right idea.

One of the unintended consequences of serial monogamy is that a trail of many varied people can find themselves brought into and out of family folds. I'll never forget seeing one tough little teenager's face crumple, when he was casually informed by the man who used to be married to his mother's sister that he didn't think he was his uncle any more.

When a significant relationship - especially with a child - is defined primarily by association with the relationship between another two adults, it can be regarded as disposable when the wind changes. Former step-parents and even former step-grandparents have painfully discovered this many times. Since the situation is now common, it's about time the Brads of this world took such matters on board.

A lethal weapon invisible to the law

Nobody disputes that the abusive marital relationship endured by Gurjit Dhaliwal played a large part in her decision in February last year to hang herself. The loving mother of two, after all, left a diary, corroborated by friends and family, that detailed years of physical and psychological abuse. A fresh wound on her forehead attested to the fact that her husband, Harcharran Dhaliwal, had abused her again shortly before she died. The mark was clearly in the shape of a bangle worn by her husband. Yet the law cannot touch him.

An attempt to mount a prosecution for "psychological manslaughter" ended this week in failure when the appeal court upheld an Old Bailey ruling that he could not be held criminally liable for his wife's death. Sandra Horley, of the domestic violence charity Refuge, said: "The law is archaic and has not kept up with medical science ... The court had to rely on an Act of 1861, before psychiatry was even born, and when the link between physical assault and mental trauma was not fully appreciated. Driving someone to suicide through psychological harm should be on the statute books."

Quite so. In fact, the area needs to be looked at more widely than this. Regularly, people who have been subjected to psychological abuse complain that there was little the law could do to help them. From the victims of nuisance phone calls to those stalked by would-be "lovers"; from workers got at by animal rights activists to teenagers driven to nervous breakdown by insidiously undermining peers, a whole range of people can testify to the effects of psychological assault inflicted by common, nasty bullies who know the law can't touch them.

Agatha Christie wrote her novel And Then There Were None, thoroughly investigating this very gap in the legal system, during the Second World War. That Gurjit's diary was treated like it too was a work of fiction is testament to the little we've progressed on this crucial issue since then.