Gulls have long been associated with coastal towns, particularly herring gulls, however, this proximity to people can lead to conflict exacerbated by misconceptions and ineffective management measures. The RSPB’s Helen Quayle reports on gulls nesting in Scarborough, responds to concern over netted birds and calls for positive action.

Within Scarborough there are two types of gull; kittiwakes and herring gulls. They might look similar but these birds behave very differently and have a different legal status.

There are a few key differences between kittiwakes (left) and herring gulls (right) including size, herring gulls being a much larger bird (Mike Langham, RSPB Images). Herring gulls are present all year round whereas smaller kittiwakes are only present on our shores from March to August. Herring gulls have pink legs and a red spot on their beak. Kittiwakes have black legs and a purely yellow beak. Herring gull wing tips have black with white `mirrors’ whereas kittiwake wing tips are solid black as though dipped in ink.

Kittiwakes are a truly oceanic bird returning to land only to nest and rear their chicks from March to August. These birds feed only at sea, making many long-distance trips fetching food for their young. Kittiwakes nest on the ledges of buildings and bridges – just like they would nest, somewhat perilously, on cliff edges.

Kittiwakes nesting on a building ledge (Ben Andrew, RSPB Images) and a cliff edge (Andy Hay, RSPB Images).

Herring gulls are larger birds and can be present in our towns all year round. These birds will feed on human food (provided intentionally or otherwise) and, as good parents, exhibit defensive behaviour towards perceived threats – in the urban environment the perceived threat can simply be people going about their business. This behaviour is very different to that of kittiwakes which do not interact with people. Herring gulls prefer to nest on flat and sloping roofs.

Kittiwakes and herring gulls are both protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Kittiwakes (and their nests, eggs and chicks) are fully protected. Herring gulls are one of a few species included in a General Licence that permits authorised persons to remove/destroy their nests and eggs where necessary to preserve public health and safety.

The area around nesting kittiwakes can be noisy and messy during their stay on land, leading some property owners to install deterrents, usually in the form of spikes or netting. This installation is legal outside the breeding season (September to February) and is intended to create a barrier between the birds and the nesting ledge. However, kittiwakes can build their nests up around and on top of spikes and, unfortunately, if netting is not put up correctly or cared for, it can become a danger to wildlife. Kittiwakes nesting near unfit netting may become entangled and unable to free themselves, often resulting in injury and/or death. It is vital that those responsible for the netting ensure that it is fit for purpose and take prompt action to release kittiwakes should they become trapped. Failure of those responsible to take action when a net is known to trap kittiwakes, could have very serious animal welfare and legal implications.

Sadly, kittiwakes became trapped in netting during summer 2017 at the Grand Hotel in Scarborough and was reported by the RSPB to the RSPCA and the Police. It is upsetting that these kittiwakes died needlessly, and it’s concerning that no apparent action has been taken by the Grand to release trapped birds promptly and prevent further kittiwakes from becoming entangled. The RSPB has urged the Grand to ensure that the netting does not pose a hazard to kittiwakes returning this spring and that there is a thorough and effective maintenance plan put in place. If this is not possible, the RSPB has advised that the nets be removed.

It is important to note that netting and other deterrents are extremely unlikely to result in gulls relocating to nearby cliffs. It is much more likely, and has been demonstrated, that kittiwakes will simply nest on adjacent buildings if their previous structure becomes unavailable. Therefore, whilst the installation of deterrents may appear to reduce conflict, it shifts the birds into different parts of town.

In 2017, Scarborough Council trialled a programme of disruption and dispersal to reduce conflict with herring gulls. This work is planned to continue in 2018 extending into Filey and involves the repeated destruction of herring gull nests and eggs. It is extremely important to be aware that such work can only target herring gulls, not kittiwakes, and must be done in accordance with the conditions of the relevant General Licence. A General Licence can only be used to preserve public health and safety when all other measures have proven to be unpractical or ineffective. It is not permitted to undertake lethal control (removal of nests and eggs) of herring gulls for nuisance or damage to property under a General Licence. Additionally, the General Licence does not permit lethal control (removal or destruction) of herring gull chicks or adults. More information about General Licence can be found on the Natural England website. Anyone taking action under a General Licence is obliged to be able to demonstrate, if necessary, that their actions are legal.

The RSPB recognises the concerns of local people, businesses and visitors in relation to urban gulls and has been calling for long-term solutions that do not damage populations of these red listed species. The severity of the situation, both in terms of the problems faced by people and the implications for kittiwakes and herring gulls, warrants a considered, effective and evidenced based solution that is sustainable in the long-term. The RSPB will keep working with others, including the Council, with the hope of making this aspiration a reality.

For more information please contact:

Helen Quayle

Marine Conservation Officer