During the spring and summer months SPICe frequently receives enquiries relating to “seagulls’’. These usually originate from constituents asking MSPs whether the birds are protected and what local authorities can do where they are felt to be causing a nuisance.
There’s no such thing as a “seagull”
Although the term “seagull” is commonly used, there isn’t technically any such thing as a “seagull”. The RSPB says that seagull is an informal way of referring to any of the species that belong to the family Laridae, the gulls.
According to The Scottish Wildlife Trust six species of gulls are commonly found in Scotland:
- herring gulls
- black-headed gulls
- lesser black-backed gulls
- great black-backed gulls
- common gulls
Other than kittiwakes, all of the above species can be found in and around built-up areas.
Different species of gulls exhibit different behaviours in terms of where they nest and forage. Some gulls are natural scavengers and can be drawn inland by availability of food in towns or at landfill sites. Traditionally gulls nest on sea-cliffs, dunes, islands and other inaccessible locations, but some gulls have successfully adopted roofs for nesting. Gulls may behave aggressively during the nesting season in order to protect their eggs or chicks.
Are gulls protected?
As a result, it is illegal to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure, or take any gull. It is also an offence to take, damage, or destroy an active nest, or its contents. In Scotland it is also illegal to also obstruct or prevent gulls from using their nest. Penalties for disregarding the law can be severe – anyone found guilty of an offence is liable to a fine of up to £5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or both.
What is their conservation status?
Scotland hosts internationally important populations of seabirds – our marine environment is home to a third of the EU’s breeding seabirds. However, currently all six of the gull species commonly found in Scotland are listed as being of conservation concern with all of the species listed above having been Red- or Amber-listed in the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 assessment.
Red-listed birds, which include the kittiwake and herring gull, are species that are globally threatened and have experienced a severe population decline and contraction in breeding. Amber-listed species have suffered more moderate declines.
Some of these declines have been linked to climate change. Other causes are not yet known conclusively, but drivers of loss could include changes in the marine environment, including pollution or changes in fishing practices.
The Scottish Government committed in its 2019-2020 Programme for Government to consult on and adopt a Seabird Conservation Strategy to be finalised in 2020.
Do local authorities have specific powers to deal with gulls? What measures can be taken?
Councils have no statutory duty or powers to take action against gulls.
Local authorities across Scotland use a range of measures to deter gulls. This ranges from advising residents to avoid attracting gulls into urban spaces through feeding them and reducing littering and food waste, to installing bird-proofing measures, such as chimney guards, spikes, or bird-netting.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have published guidance on gull management which encourages a ‘hierarchical approach’ to gull management. A site owner or manager should aim to prevent problems occurring in the first instance (avoidance) through the use of scaring devices and preventative measures such as nets, wires, spikes and annual pre-nesting debris removal.
Local authorities (and owners or occupiers of a property) in Scotland may also be able to use SNH General Licences – where there is no need to apply if you comply with the terms of the licence – or apply for an individual licence to carry out certain control activities which may otherwise be illegal. However SNH emphasise that licensed activities should be a last resort where preventative measures have been exhausted.
Licences can cover actions such as destroying the eggs of certain wild birds (e.g. through pricking or oiling) or killing birds using specified methods – although SNH emphasise that the killing of birds should be an absolute last resort and carried out by a reputable pest controller.
The type of licence required depends on the species of gull and the purpose of the actions. SNH periodically reviews its licensing so up to date information should be sought before any action is taken.
General Licences currently only apply to herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and, lesser black-backed gulls, where measures taken are necessary for the preservation of public health, public safety and preventing the spread of disease, as a last resort. Great black-backed gulls will be removed from General Licences from 1 April 2020. If you wish to make use of this general licence, you must be able to confirm the species of gull.
What is being done to deter ‘nuisance gulls’?
SPICe has found the following examples of gull control measures from local authorities:
Angus Council provides removal of seagull nests and eggs from domestic properties free of charge.
Dundee City Council offers bird proofing and egg or nest removal during the breeding season as a chargeable service and says it is proactively improving the waste disposal facilities.
Dumfries and Galloway Council operates a free nest and egg removal service during the gull breeding season and gathers information on the location of nests / incidents. Residents are also encouraged to not feed gulls and dispose of litter properly.
East Lothian Council carries out an annual ‘gull control programme’ in Musselburgh and Dunbar and investigates people who excessively feed gulls.
South Ayrshire Council a campaign to ‘Feed a Bin Not a Gull’ to raise awareness of the problems caused by feeding gulls and the importance of ensuring litter and food-waste is properly disposed of. Gull-proof bins were also installed in the area.
Is the Scottish Government likely to increase powers to tackle nuisance gulls?
A question was asked about this in Chamber in 2018, in response the Scottish Government stated that it ‘does not intend to introduce further powers’ to local authorities in order to tackle gull populations at this time.
If you are concerned for the welfare of a gull or think that a gull nestling has been abandoned by its parents, you can contact the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).
Julia Hurst, SPICe Enquiries Assistant