And you thought pigeons were bad? Strategies for dealing with problem gulls.

NBC Environment

Gulls have become a regular feature in the national media each summer. Stories tend to focus upon sensational, or more typically sensationalised, coverage of attacks by the birds. This exposure led the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, to finally call for a “big conversation” about gulls in 2015. However, the birds will have been on the collective radar of local authorities for much longer, and nowhere are the problems more keenly felt than in housing departments.

Gulls cause a wide range of problems, particularly during the breeding season, which begins in April. Noise is often the number one complaint and as the size of a colony grows, so too does the racket. Aggression should not be discounted though, the birds are opportunistic and confident scavengers, and not unknown to mug people for food. They will also dive bomb anyone they feel is threatening their offspring. These behaviours can be particularly distressing for older people.

However, a primary concern should be faeces, as well as being unsightly, it presents a slip risk. The guano can also carry 60 diseases including avian flu and histoplasmosis, the latter an airborne pathogen that can enter a building through air vents or ventilation systems. If that weren’t enough, gulls can carry around 50 different types of ectoparasite, which range from lice to bed bugs.

All-in-all, gulls present a very real hazard to people living and working in an area with a large gull population and the birds will remain at the nesting spot for around six months of the year. The risks grow each year in direct relation to the size of the colony. The birds can live up to 35 years, they start breeding at around three years of age and can have two broods each year. They can also return to the same site each year with their offspring in tow. This means multi-generational colonies can increase exponentially if left unchecked.

A colony in close proximity to tenants can potentially leave the management firm open to litigation. While many local authorities are coming under increasing pressure to cull gulls, the reality isn’t that straightforward. UK birds are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it illegal to kill or injure a bird, or to move or destroy an active nest. Whilst gulls are increasingly being acknowledged as ‘pests’, even the familiar Herring Gull has amber protected status. This is despite the fact the gull population is growing inland and rooftop nesting has quadrupled over the past 15 years.

Despite the lack of guidance or funding from national government, some local authorities and housing associations are now taking matters into their own hands and are starting to introduce schemes to address the issue.

A successful programme taps into gulls’ natural instincts; the risks must outweigh the rewards of living at a particular nest site – the key motivator is self-preservation. If a regular nesting area can be made less attractive, inaccessible or appear risky, a gull will be less likely to select it.

The autumn is the ideal point to put deterrents in place. Once adults and fledglings have left the nests from September onwards buildings can be proofed using netting, barriers and taste aversion gels. It’s also sensible to upgrade to gull-proof waste bins and refuse bags before the birds return.

To be really effective other techniques must be used at key points in the year. Falconry should be employed between January and March to discourage gulls from nesting. We worked with the Port of Leith Housing Association (PoLHA) to keep troublesome gulls away from Goosander Place in the Western Harbour, an affordable housing development of 102 homes. PoLHA had secured £11.3 million in grants from Edinburgh City Council to rehouse former residents of Fort House housing estate, which was scheduled for demolition.

There was a significant gull population in the area and PoLHA could not risk the birds attacking residents or blocking drains and gutters with their faeces. NBC was contracted to use falconry four days each week to prevent the gulls from nesting during the breeding season. The service was continued over the summer to convince the birds there was an active population of predators in the area up to the point they migrated.

In June and July any inhabited nests can be removed or eggs replaced with replicas every 20 days – timing is critical here, gull eggs incubate for 21 days and once they hatch the chicks are protected by environmental legislation. This year we began working with Bath and North East Somerset Council to remove nests in four wards where there were significant or growing numbers of breeding pairs. Over the course of the season 200 surveys were booked and we removed 469 nests containing 1,141 eggs – this will significantly reduce the numbers of birds returning in 2017.

One key point to bear in mind for anyone serious about putting a strategy in place is the process must be repeated annually until the cycle is broken. This can take several years but prevention can be far more cost-effective than continuous maintenance. It’s certainly less stressful than having to deal with complaints, given these will likely multiply each year along with the gulls.

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