On the south coast, especially in Peacehaven, war has broken out between people and birds. The seagulls have become aggressive as they are protecting their eggs and chicks, while the property owners hold much the same views, only in a mammalian context. Opinion is divided. The gull colonies are a nuisance but if you go and live at the seaside you can reasonably expect some seabirds.
Despite the claims of Tim McKenzie, founder of a pro-gull rescue service, that the numbers of British herring gulls are falling, you couldn't prove that by council offices, which regularly take complaints about the numbers of them. The figures from the British Ornithology Trust suggest that it makes a difference which sub-species you are talking about and the last survey was about two years ago. In global population the bird is not in danger.
Gulls are intelligent creatures with excellent eyesight adapted for scavenging and have been doing well since we stopped burning food waste or giving to the pigs and started trying to bury it at the rubbish dump. The south coast is lined with fast-food outlets and visited by people incapable of putting waste food in sealed bins. There are also people who insist on feeding the gulls in the mistaken belief that the creatures are starving to death. If herring gulls are dying - and English Nature says the numbers of certain varieties have fallen - it's only a wonder they aren't going off bang from over-feeding.
Gulls in general don't have to work very hard to increase their numbers. So long as they can find a nesting site, they are guaranteed all the food it takes to raise chicks and they have few predators except very determined cats. According to Mrs Rosemary Howat in Hove, her moggy has already given up after being dive-bombed and screeched at. In 2002 Mr Wilfred Roby, an 80-year-old retired ambulance driver from Anglesey, died when he was attacked by a gull in his garden. It was a heart attack brought on by surprise, so it wasn't like he was pecked to death, but that's of little comfort to the bereaved.
There are circumstances where gulls can be legally killed, or the nests moved. The licencing is now from Natural England which held a consultation in 2009 and revised their guidelines. They received helpful advice from conservation and wildlife groups such as the RSPB, who provided a summary of the general legal position:
"Licences issued under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) are bound by the requirements of EU Council Directive 79/409/EEC (the Birds Directive) on the conservation of wild birds. Member states are required to establish (Article 5) a general system of protection for all birds referred to in Article 1 of the Directive, including the prohibition of deliberate killing or capture. They are also required to prohibit (Article 8/Annex IV(a)) all means of non-selective capture or killing including, explicitly, 'traps'. Member states may, however, derogate (Article 9) from the provisions of Articles 5 and 8 inter alia in the interests of public health and safety, to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries and water, and for the protection of fauna and flora. This may be done only in the absence of another satisfactory solution and if clearly defined terms and conditions are met."
Which is an awfully long way of saying: 'don't kill wild birds, except if you absolutely have to in order to protect something else which deserves protection more, and you can't avoid the killing'. No quarrel with that; the RSPB and English Nature are both wildlife protecting groups, not pet-keepers.
English Nature then issued general guidance notes about gull-control, summarizing the changes.
"These changes included the removal of the herring gull and great black-backed gull species from general licences (the status of lesser black-backed gull was unaffected).... Natural England has decided that it is appropriate to control the scale of killing under licences. Therefore, with some exceptions (for example, air safety and herring gull egg control in urban areas for public health and safety) action against both species will now be authorised via individual licences. This approach will help to ensure that killing is only undertaken where strictly necessary. It will also allow Natural England to limit the number of birds killed".
In summary: gulls can be killed under general licence from English Nature (a power devolved from DEFRA), but it they are of the named species herring or greater black-backed, (not the lesser black-backed) you have to get an individual licence which means showing there is no alternative to destroying the adult bird. If you are the manager of an airport this will be granted but otherwise the next step down is to deal with the eggs.
Rather than break them or remove the nest, eggs are oiled so that they never hatch, but the birds sit on them and don't attempt to nest and lay eggs elsewhere - at least until they realize that they are wasting their time. It's a effective form of population control. Keep that up for a few years where you don't want the gulls nesting and they'll soon get the message; go find a proper cliff . Don't forget to put up spikes so that they don't try to come back again. And stop putting food out for them.
There is another option based on an old craft and which preserves both breeds and skills. Falconry. It's already used in seagull control by professional falconers in Eastbourne. It happens that last week the RSPB were disappointed to have to abandon plans to re-introduce the Sea Eagle to the Suffolk coast, when English Nature withdrew the half-a-million pound funding, and there was fierce opposition from farming groups. There is an opportunity here.
Admittedly it wouldn't be a wild eagle, but a trained hunting eagle would be better than nothing. They would give the tourists a magnificent free show and it would be a proper job for a person in these difficult times, present no danger to livestock, and the cost could be met out of the savings on clearing up seagull guano. Indeed, it doesn't even violate the intention of the legislation; the eagle doesn't so much hunt the gull as intimidate it in to getting the hell outta town.
Suffolk's loss could be Eastbourne, Peacehaven, Hove and Brighton's gain.