Brits love to hate the UK's seagulls, but maybe its time to start hating how much we love them
We might get a bit miffed when gulls swoop in and steal our chips, but environment specialist Amber Allott says it's better than a seaside without them
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I was taken by surprise today by the disdain my colleagues had for the humble gull - an iconic sight around Britain's seaside towns.
I haven't been in the UK long, but I'm quite fond of gulls. By all accounts, even the most aggressive of chip-thieving species are in big trouble - and as the RSPB has told me, human activity has played a big part in that.
This comes as a seaside resort in Rhyl, North Wales, has reportedly scrapped an anti-breeding project aimed at ending scavenging gulls' aerial assaults on tourists after facing backlash from animal rights activists, according to The Telegraph.
An anti-gull councillor spoke of a seagull "lobby" which would "get pretty upset if you start talking", while locals slammed them as "flying rats". The £20,000 plan would have seen freshly-hatched gull eggs targeted "so you are not killing anything, as the embryo hasn’t formed" - to control the local bird population.
No wonder people were upset.
When I raised the story with my colleagues this morning, most of whom grew up in the UK, a similar trend emerged. Tales of holidays ruined, as chips and ice creams were cruelly snatched from outstretched hands.
For entertainment reporter Natalie Dixon, who also grew up in sunny Rhyl, hearing stories about seagulls stealing chips from people was the norm.
"I’ll never forget a day out to Llandudno when I was 13," she said. "My friend and I had just treated ourselves to a tuna and cucumber sandwich. As we walked towards the promenade - sandwich in hand - to find a bench so that we could enjoy our lunch a seagull flew down and tried to take it out of my hands."
There was a back-and-forth as she tried desperately to keep hold of her sandwich, but eventually the gull triumphed, and Natalie "gave up and watched the seagull fly away with my tuna butty as I stood in shock".
Politics specialist Ralph Blackburn had a similar tale of woe. After seven hungry hours of driving from London to France to stay in the seaside town of Étretat, he had finally checked into his Airbnb and was walking around town with a Nutella crepe.
"I think I had one bite of it and then looked away, and next thing I heard this flapping by my shoulder. This huge seagull had just grabbed the crepe, Nutella all over its face, and was just absolutely guzzling it down."
"I was so hungry, and the first bite was so delicious. It was absolutely devastating," he continued.
The plight of the UK's 'seagulls'
The RSPB - the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - told NationalWorld there isn't really any such thing as a 'seagull'. Jacques Villemot, RSPB's marine policy officer, said there are lots of different gulls in the UK - which are frequently lumped together.
"We can pride ourselves of being an internationally important country for seabirds, and this is no different for gulls. From the large grey winged herring gulls, to its even bigger darker feathered cousins [the] black-backed gulls, or the much daintier and delicate kittiwakes, we host many different types of these birds," he said.
However, one thing they unfortunately all have in common is that they are struggling. "Gulls are incredible birds, remarkably intelligent and beautiful, but their populations are severely declining".
Beyond being a top predator in the UK's city centres, "something we should all appreciate and cherish given how much access to wildlife has become a privilege", they were also indicators of the general state of the UK's seas, he continued.
"They are the visible tip of the iceberg. The fact that they are struggling so much and that they have increasingly left their traditional habitats should tell us that something is wrong [in] our seas."
Herring gulls were one of the commonly maligned, but Mr Villemot said they were "amazing seabirds" - remarkably intelligent, and able to quickly adapt to new situations and opportunities.
“Where once they followed fishing boats looking for easy catches, they have now realised that with litter and discarded food waste our towns and cities are also excellent places to find a meal." But far from purely being opportunists, this also reflected that their traditional habitats and food sources were in decline, he said.
A triple whammy of human activity at sea - development, climate change, and unsustainable fishing - was making it harder for gulls to live, feed, and raise their chicks in their natural habitats, and Mr Villemot said towns, with their predator-free roofs, offered some advantages to the struggling seabirds.
Making sure herring gulls didn't have access to easy meals was one way to reduce their conflict with people. Cutting the amount of food waste in towns, preventing street littering, making public, domestic and business waste containers and collection arrangements "gull-proof", and increasing public awareness of how to act around protective gull parents could all make a difference.
“While it might appear that herring gulls are thriving because of their increased presence inland and in our cities, they are in fact ‘red listed’ in the UK – the highest level of conservation concern," he said. "We are concerned that more urgent action is needed to revive their natural habitats and our seas, and help our globally important gull colonies and other seabirds recover.”
I too have a seagull 'horror story'. I grew up in New Zealand, where our own chips were in no way immune to interference. I remember one fateful fish and chip dinner with my mum and sister at the local playground when I was a little girl. Mum came over to push us on the swings, briefly leaving our chips unattended.
Within seconds, an entire flock of red-billed gulls had swarmed them. I remember squealing in delight as my mum hurried over to shoo the birds away, but it was too late - a pile of greasy newspapers was all that remained.
Twenty-odd years later, I was an environment reporter at a daily newspaper hours away from my home town, writing about how red-billed gull numbers were plummeting so fast the species was now considered at-risk, and still declining.
One wildlife rescuer told me of local supermarkets donating expired fish to her, which she fed to seagulls to prevent them from starving to death. It made me profoundly sad.
Sure, they snatched a few chips and ruined a few picnics, but they were a part of my childhood - a part of growing up by the sea. If we don't take care of them, for future generations they may not be.