A guest blog from Chris Corrigan - the RSPB's Director of England.


Last summer we reported that many young lesser black-backed gulls had been killed at a breeding colony in Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland. Because the gulls were part of a nationally (and indeed internationally) important population, any such actions would have required special consent from Natural England. However, there were questions as to whether a valid consent existed for this cull, particularly because the culling happened on land owned by United Utilities, so an investigation began. It has taken more than a year to conclude the investigation but Natural England has now responded by issuing a Compliance Notice – essentially a slapped wrist in the form of a legal document – against the Grosvenor (Abbeystead) Estate.

The Forest of Bowland - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

The Compliance Notice makes it clear that consents were not in place for the actions that took place, and that the killing of the gulls by the Estate was unlawful. Natural England could have chosen to prosecute for offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however, it has instead opted to issue the Abbeystead Estate with a gentle reprimand, reminding them of the legal position and basically telling them not to do it again. We’d hoped for a stronger response.

However, there are some positives to take from Natural England’s response, besides the fact that the Estate was at least found to have acted unlawfully. The Notice publicly recognises the national and international importance of the lesser black-backed gull colony on the Bowland Fells, highlighting that this is now England’s largest breeding colony. It also confirms that the 2017 culling of these gulls was inconsistent with the nature conservation objectives in place which aim to ensure the species can thrive at this important breeding site. Although this might not sound like ground-breaking news, these statements are important.

They are important because, despite Natural England having provided Defra with the evidence to demonstrate the international importance of the lesser black-backed gull colony at Bowland nearly four years ago, the gulls have still not been added as a qualifying feature to the Bowland Fells Special Protection Area (SPA); a move that would which give the gulls the highest level of protection. And this is important because, while the review of the Bowland Fells SPA has been sitting on Defra’s desk, some of the Bowland Estates (including Abbeystead) have been able to continue to use historic consents that allow them to kill unlimited numbers of lesser black-backed gulls on their land. In the past, these consents have allowed the killing of such vast numbers of gulls that their population at Bowland was reduced from 25,000 pairs (in 1981) to fewer than 8000 pairs (in 1985); something that Natural England might, on review, logically consider is inconsistent with the protection of a nationally and internationally important population.

In short, Defra needs to take urgent action to review the Bowland Fells SPA and confirm lesser black-backed gull as a feature of international importance on this site. Can they turn the positive rhetoric into positive practice?

This would then trigger a review of the existing consents to kill gulls on the Abbeystead Estate, and remove any precedent for further consents being issued to other Bowland Estate managers to cull this most important colony. Allowing continued culling of this declining species is sending out all the wrong signals from these Government bodies who should be focusing on ensuring the recovery of lesser black-backed gulls at this, the single most important site in England for them.