Herring gull

Gulls and us

No other family of bird divides opinion like gulls.

Why gulls are so controversial?

Some people admire their graceful flight and mastery of the air, and find their distinctive grey and white plumage attractive. Others see them as noisy, aggressive and quarrelsome!

To a certain extent, those in the ‘anti-gull’ camp have valid points: the noise created by hundreds of gulls at a breeding colony is cacophonous; the larger gulls can be aggressive in defence of their young and being competitive, they will squabble with each other over food.

The gulls most likely to come into conflict with man are the herring and lesser black-backed gulls. Since the 1980s, there has been a marked increase in numbers of these birds nesting on roofs. Between 1994-2002, the number of herring gulls nesting on roofs doubled to 20,000 pairs. Roof-nesting Lesser black-backed gulls increased fourfold to 11,000 pairs.

The UK holds more than 70 per cent of the world population of the graellsii subspecies of lesser black-backed gull, and herring gull numbers have declined dramatically - by 50 per cent since 1970. Due to this vulnerability, the herring gull is on the red list of birds of conservation concern and the lesser black-backed gull is on the amber list.

 Lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus, adult standing on granite rocks typical of the Scilly coastline, Gugh, Isles of Scilly, UK

‘Sea’ gulls

Historically, gulls were marine in their habits, so what caused them to move inland?

Many gulls scavenge behind fishing trawlers, but over the last 30 years, the commercial fishing industry has changed dramatically. Overfishing has resulted in fewer commercial fishing operations and those that survived altered their practices to reduce the amount thrown away.

In order to increase revenues from fishing operations, the offal that was previously thrown overboard and eaten by the gulls was retained for the production of fish meal. With these vital food supplies gone, gulls had to look elsewhere for food, and this brought them inland, and inevitably into conflict with man.

Gulls are intelligent and resourceful and they soon learned to take advantage of the waste we produce at landfill sites. Previously they nested on sea cliffs in order to be close to their food supply, but now nest on urban roofs.

Protective parents

When young gulls fledge, they often cannot fly for a few days, so will remain on the ground, continuing to be fed by and defended by the parents until they are capable of flight. If a human or pet approaches too closely, the adults will ‘dive-bomb’ the perceived threat to their young.

If you come across a young gull that is not injured or orphaned, stay well away. If approaching it is unavoidable, hold a stick or umbrella above your head to deter the parents.

Another problem arises when people feed gulls. Given their competitive nature, they will fight each other to get to the food first, often resulting in them snatching the food item from the hand, so never feed gulls. Their resourceful nature makes them perfectly capable of finding their own food.

You may not be able to love our large gulls, but try to admire them for their intelligence, resourcefulness, good parenting instincts, and their adaptable and resilient nature.

Kittiwake, Rissa Tridactyla, pair of adults on nest, Dunbar, Scotland

How you can help

Common seal Phoca vitulina, adult 'spy hopping', Kildonan, Isle of Arran, Scotland, May

Our precious seas are dying from neglect. Your support today will help safeguard our sea life.