The UK is home to a significant proportion of the world’s herring and lesser black-backed gull populations. Like all birds, they are protected by law and can only be controlled in England with a licence issued by Natural England. While these species appear to be increasing in many urban areas, natural nesting large gulls have declined in more rural areas. In recent years, in order to support their recovery, lethal control was not permitted to exceed levels that could have a detrimental impact on their local conservation status.
We know that many residents and businesses in English towns have concerns about gulls. Their behaviour in the breeding season can feel threatening to people and on occasion can create health and safety issues. However, lethal control should not be the first or default option and there are a range of non-lethal methods available that can prevent or minimise these risks.
We want to ensure an approach to licensing that balances the needs of local people with the need to protect two species that are in decline in rural areas.
Over the course of this year, we have worked with some local authorities to develop a more strategic approach that allows them the flexibility to act where needed – but only when non-lethal methods have been exhausted and proved ineffective.
Earlier this year, Natural England piloted Organisational Licences with Bath & North East Somerset and Worcester City Council to manage urban gulls for the purpose of preserving public health and safety. Our aim was to help them deal with the most severe public health risks posed to residents by nesting gulls, whilst ensuring that any lethal control by the destruction of eggs and nests was lawful, justified, and proportionate.
Both local authorities had completed management plans and had invested in non-lethal deterrents such as reducing the birds’ access to nest sites with netting where appropriate, scaring with hawks, and reducing food waste in public spaces. Throughout the trial period, the two local authorities operated within the conditions of the organisational licence by requesting permission to destroy nests and eggs at specific locations. For each site, they were asked to show:
• A risk to public health or public safety caused by gull activity or behaviour existed at that location
• Lethal control was the last resort, i.e. all appropriate and practical deterrents had already been tried or considered
• Any planned lethal control was proportionate to the risk and would help resolve the problem.
We have now completed our review of the trial, and site visits conducted by Natural England at the end of the trial gave us the opportunity to gain further insights into the practicalities of gull management and its challenges.
Where egg and nest removal were approved, the most common reasons for this were related to physical attacks by gulls on people vulnerable to falls or other injury, and to excess night-time noise in residential areas causing sleep deprivation that exacerbated pre-existing health conditions. Prompt decisions enabled licence holders to act quickly to resolve the most urgent health issues.
While local councils continue to receive complaints from residents regarding food snatching, fouling and general nuisance caused by gulls, the law (Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981) does not allow lethal control in these circumstances.
Our review found that the most successful outcomes were realised where the removal of a small number of nests in residential areas fully resolved the issue, and where the actions were followed up by non-lethal deterrents such as exclusion or hawking. Public health problems caused by large numbers of gulls colonising industrial buildings were difficult to manage under Organisational Licence conditions. In these circumstances a separate Individual Licence application was considered appropriate.
The trial demonstrated the benefits of working closely with Local Authorities and identified the need for best practice guidance to help manage gulls using non-lethal deterrents more effectively, whilst also providing training on the behaviour and ecology of urban gulls. We believe more can be done to help residents live alongside gulls by sharing and promoting best practice in management techniques. However, lethal control remains an effective management tool in some circumstances.
Going forward to 2022, we are aiming to invest in improving the advice and guidance for local authorities to help manage their gull populations more effectively. We are also seeking to roll out the Organisational Licence more widely across England. Under the piloted licences, local authorities were required to submit requests in advance of taking action. As a result of the evaluation, next year local authorities possessing an Organisational Licence will no longer need to seek advance approval from Natural England to address specific public health and safety risks concerning sleep deprivation and attacks from aggressive gulls on vulnerable individuals.
If you work for a local authority and are interested in finding out more about an Organisational Licence and how to apply, please contact NECCU@naturalengland.org.uk
Individuals and businesses that wish to apply for an Individual Licence in 2022 should use the screening service introduced earlier this year for advice on the likelihood of obtaining a licence.