Gone gull: Climate crisis taking toll on seabird numbers, as more turn to urban scavenging

Herring gulls may seem common in towns, but they are now red listed due to falling numbers

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 20 April 2022 22:23
Comments
<p>Have herring gulls had their chips?</p>

Have herring gulls had their chips?

The common sights and sounds of urban-dwelling gulls are masking a serious decline in their numbers, according to Scottish conservationists, who have warned that the effects of the worsening climate crisis and overfishing are reducing the birds’ natural food sources.

Some of the most common species seen in British towns and cities are the herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull, but both are seeing considerable falls in numbers, with herring gulls now a red-listed species on the birds of conservation concern list, meaning that overall their populations are in decline.

Lesser black-backed gulls are also declining, and the species is now listed as amber on the list of conservation concern for birds which breed in Scotland.

While urban gulls’ taste for human food has led them to become dive-bombing, chip-stealing, rubbish-spreading pests, this is believed to be an adaptation to their nose-diving supplies of food in the wild.

According to Nature Scot’s report, councils are increasingly turning to methods such as using hawks to scare off gulls, and introducing bird spikes and netting to prevent birds accessing certain buildings or areas.

The report said: "As their favourite grub of small fish has become harder to find, they’ll settle for whatever we leave available. So one way to keep them away is not to feed them and to make sure your rubbish goes in a secure bin."

"Gull species are actually struggling in their native habitat, with their numbers tumbling in some areas and for all species in Scotland," Nature Scot said.

Jacques Villemot, RSPB marine policy officer, told The Independent that rising water temperatures and storms have made these common seabirds’ existence more perilous, and called on councils and property owners to accommodate birds.

​​“People often associate gulls with days at the beach, but more and more they’re being forced into towns and cities to look for food,” he said.

“The climate crisis is one of the reasons why – many fish populations are changing their distribution in response to changing water temperatures, and increased storms and extreme weather events make it more perilous for birds to hunt.

"Herring gulls, for example, are now on the red list partly because of overfishing and warming seas leading to a decrease in their food’s quality and quantity, issues which have also kept the amber-listed lesser black-backed gulls on very shaky grounds. Many birds are then also losing nesting sites on the coasts, preventing them from raising the next generation in natural sites.

“The UK has globally important colonies of seabirds on our coasts and we need to see UK governments work with energy companies, our fishing industries, and conservationists to find ways to stop their decline.”

He added: "There isn’t one simple solution, and halting the climate crisis is a long-term battle – but giving gulls space to breed and feed by protecting nesting sites and halting overfishing is a good place to start.

“And in our cities we can learn to live alongside these extraordinary birds, and respect their space by not interfering with their nesting sites or feeding them. By working together we can protect wildlife both above and below the waves.”

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