Anyone who wants to cull herring and lesser black-backed gulls needs to rely on licences provided by Natural England. RSPB's Chris Calow reflects on new licencing arrangements for these familar birds ... 

Natural England has today announced its new arrangements for the licencing of herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls. You may remember that last year these two gull species were removed from general licences in England because of concerns about what impact the unregulated control could be having on their conservation status. We welcomed this move due to declining populations of both species.

 A full year of control being allowed only under individual licences has allowed NE to assess the level of gull control which takes place in England and the numbers are shocking. In 2019 alone over 25,000 lesser black-backed gull eggs and over 3000 adults were destroyed. The figures for herring gulls are over 15,000 and over 2750 respectively. This level of control must have undoubtedly had an impact on populations and has forced NE to take a different approach going forward.

Whilst we welcome the effort to put in place a better and more proportionate system, we have significant concerns. In rural areas, Natural England will licence the control of up to 5% of the natural mortality total of each species. Putting a cap on the number of birds which can be killed is a sensible idea however nobody really knows how many of these two gulls there are because no complete census has been carried out since the year 2000. What we do know is that both species have severely declined, Natural England themselves told us that since 1986 the declines are 77% for lesser black-backed gulls and 79% for herring gulls. This means that Natural England is basing their 5% figure on very outdated information.

There will be no upper limit on the number of gulls which can be controlled in urban areas because, according to Natural England, populations are thought to have better breeding success rates and are therefore more resistant to declines. We believe this is a mistake because there will be an upper limit at which point breeding success no longer replaces mortality and populations will decline. It also assumes a closed population with no interchange between urban and rural populations. However, there is now a requirement in urban areas to have a management plan in place to reduce or remove the need for lethal control. This is a step in the right direction and a move towards improving people’s relationships with some of our charismatic native species.

Seabirds are the fastest declining group of birds globally, and whilst the UK is internationally important for its population of breeding seabirds, even these are facing significant declines. This decline and the threat to UK seabird populations has now been acknowledged by the Environment Minster Rebecca Pow and prompted the UK Government to announce a much-needed seabird conservation strategy

We question how Natural England’s new approach fits with the newly announced seabird strategy. To be clear, changes to the licencing of gulls were required but we do not believe this is the solution.