Skip to main content

Natural England’s approach to large gull licensing in urban areas in 2021

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Uncategorized

Gulls have become a common sight in English towns and cities, their presence often generating strong feelings. The two large gull species frequently seen are the lesser black-backed gull and herring gull. While natural-nesting populations - predominantly in rural areas - have declined significantly in recent years, some believe numbers of birds choosing to nest on buildings has increased. There has, however, been limited data to back this up.

As all birds are protected by law, in order to control them, a licence is required. To obtain one from Natural England, evidence of need must be provided along with reasons why non-lethal methods cannot be used.

The gull species mentioned above were historically subject to control under general licence, primarily for conservation or public health or safety reasons. However, due to rural population declines, Natural England’s approach to licensing last year was much stricter and relatively few licences for lethal control were issued in 2020.

In rural areas, applications were most commonly made for conservation purposes. We did grant some licences where an application showed that there was a clear threat from gulls to local populations of endangered species but were unable to grant licences without this evidence. Please see my previous blog for more detail on our approach to conservation licences this year.

In towns and cities, the most common reason for applications was public health or safety, with most coming from professional pest control companies, often working for local authorities or utility companies.

While we did grant some licences, most applications did not provide enough evidence that suitable alternatives had been properly considered before seeking a licence for lethal control and frequently, evidence provided fell short of our legal tests. Often, the reasons cited for control were public nuisance rather than public health. In response, we asked applicants to submit integrated management plans instead in order to support more strategic and coordinated approaches.

Applications this year are likely to be strongest where:

  • A specific health and safety risk has been identified and this is supported by expert evidence such as from an environmental health department;
  • An explanation is provided for why non-lethal measures were inappropriate or impractical. For urban environments, applicants must submit an Integrated Management Plan.

More generic applications, referring to widespread issues or ‘public nuisance’ without supporting evidence will not be issued licences.

Due to the limited information available about gull populations, we have been improving our data over the course of this year to inform and reform our approach to licensing.  We accelerated fieldwork in urban areas to provide up-to-date gull population estimates for England and produced estimates for populations of the two species nesting either in urban or in rural habitats, and either on the coasts or inland.

We have published the full analysis and provisional population estimates. The report shows that, on balance, while it is likely that English roof nesting bird populations are increasing, natural nesting populations are certainly in decline. Evidence from this work supports the approach we took in 2020, which will remain in place in 2021. Even in urban areas, we will still need to see supporting evidence for public health/health and safety applications of a specific need, and that non-lethal methods have been considered before any lethal control will be permitted. As with all licences, even in these scenarios, lethal control numbers will need to be proportionate to the purpose of the licence.

We have listened to feedback from last year’s applicants and have improved the application process. We recently  launched a simple screening process so potential applicants can understand very quickly if their situation is likely to warrant a licence. Where there is a pressing need, we can offer a more personalised application experience with named advisers supporting applicants through the process.

We are planning to trial some organisational licences for local authorities in 2021. The control permitted under organisational licences would be subject to the same legal tests as under individual licences, but holding an organisational licence would allow local authorities to take timely action to minimise risks to public health/ health and safety. Organisational licences would require local authorities to submit high-quality management plans to demonstrate that all non-lethal control methods were being undertaken, and would permit some limited lethal control where specific conditions are met. Our aspiration is that organisational licences will promote best practice in the management of urban large gull populations, thereby reducing conflict between gulls and people in urban environments, and enabling local authorities to take early action in situations that pose a clear risk to public health and safety without the need to apply for an individual licence each time.

We want to support the continued recovery of these large gulls and will improve further the evidence that informs licensing in future years.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Simon Mesner posted on

    In an age when humans are depleting the world of creatures, how can it still be acceptable to eliminate animals that don't fit into our way of thinking? Gulls are only a nuisance because of human behaviour - loss of apex predators, edible waste being left lying around, loss of rural habitat. Shooting gulls is certainly a quick answer but like eating fast food, it might solve a short term issue but it is not sustainable nor healthy in the long run.
    Natural England need to live up to their name, which is currently an oxymoron and come up with better solutions than shooting birds because we don't like them in urban areas. And maybe re-reading the definition of an ecosystem would be helpful.

    Very poor yet again Dave Slater.

  2. Comment by Nick Summer posted on

    I think anyone who lives in an urban area which is infested with gulls would not feel as sympathetic. From March through to September their noise is incessant from dawn to dusk, which in my personal case means that by July I am suffering from serious sleep deprivation as their shrill cries start as early as 3.30 am and continue until after 10 pm at night.
    They foul the pavements, frighten some people with their behaviour during the mating season, rip open bags of rubbish on bin collection days and scatter it all over peoples' doorways, pavements and even the roads. It costs the Council huge sums to clean up after them. Add to that the damage they do to buildings, blocking gutters, etc. What's to like ?

    • Replies to Nick Summer>

      Comment by Simon posted on

      I can understand your frustration Nick. But is killing gulls the best way to reduce the human felt tension? It may be seen as a quick fix but given the biodiversity crisis and the crisis with the ecosystem/natural world in general, is it an acceptable method of solving gull/human conflit?
      Have you read any articles such as this recently:

      Wiping out more of nature just because humans find it inconvenient will prove even more inconvenient for us all further down the line.

      As for not liking gulls, that idea misunderstands the ecosystem and the role of all living organisms in it. I get bitten by any biting insect (much more so than other people) and really wish that didn't happen to me but I certainly don't want to kill them. If it means I have to moderate my behaviour or spend money on ecofriendly repelent then so be it for the sake of the planet (which is my interests too).

      Ironically the behaviour of gulls you report sounds very much like some humans. There are plenty in my area that make a lot of noise after dark, throw rubbish on the ground, frighten other residents in the park and on the canal etc. Lucky gulls can't operate guns I guess.