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Many people see gulls as nothing more than a menace
Many harassed residents will no doubt welcome the decision to cull nuisance seabirds in Dublin Fingal, but there are plenty opposed – with one TD branding it both ‘hideous’ and ineffective.
So why might the gulls of north Co Dublin be well advised to start looking for another home?
Because the Government has decided it’s time to clip their wings. Last weekend it emerged Local Government Minister Darragh O’Brien has given permission for a cull of nuisance seabirds in his own Dublin Fingal constituency.
Although many Dubliners who have been kept awake or had lunch snatched by a shrieking gull will welcome this move, it’s by no means universally popular. Birdwatch Ireland says we must learn to live with our feathered friends instead of just slaughtering their young, while the minister’s decision has been called “hideous” by a government TD.
“Any cull of the seagulls will clearly be in breach of the EU Birds Directive,” Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan told the Dublin Live website last Tuesday, “and is almost certain to be entirely ineffective in any case.”
What sort of birds have been issued with a death warrant?
Most of us just call them “seagulls”, but that’s actually an umbrella term for a few different breeds. The culling directive names three: herring gulls, the greater black-backed gull and the lesser black-backed gull.
Herring gulls are the biggest culprits, easily recognisable from their sharp yellow beaks with red marks. They often build their nests on the top of high buildings, where it is hard for humans – or any other creatures – to get at them.
And why are they considered such pests?
Herring gulls tend to be early risers and their 4am squawking has made many sleepless Dubliners feel equally wild. They also do their business wherever they feel like it, a nasty substance which can contain deadly bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. Above all, herring gulls are totally shameless about stealing our food.
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Sandwiches, chips and ice-creams are common targets, while two years ago a gull was filmed marching into a Londis store on Grafton Street and swiping a packet of crisps. According to the shopkeeper, he was a repeat offender and this was his third such incident that day.
Why has the problem got so much worse in recent years?
Because we have invaded their territory too. For centuries, Dublin’s gulls spent most of their time offshore on places such as Lambay Island and Ireland’s Eye. Now human activities such as overfishing and plastic pollution have left these birds literally not knowing where their next meal is coming from.
“Go down towards any beach or coastline this week and you’ll see thousands and thousands of people in the habitat that gulls would normally live in,” Birdwatch Ireland’s senior seabird conservation officer Dr Stephen Newton said on Newstalk radio last month.
“They come into towns because we are so profligate with our waste and our litter – that means food to a gull.”
Does Dublin Fingal seem to be a particularly popular gull hang-out?
Yes. To take just one revealing statistic, in 2003 Balbriggan had only 47 recorded pairs of nesting herring gulls. Last year, a National Parks and Wildlife Service found that figure had rocketed to 1,485.
In scenes reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film The Birds, teachers at Réalt na Mara primary school near the Skerries coast have sometimes kept their pupils indoors during lunch break because the gulls look dangerously hungry.
“They are literally taking over [Balbriggan],” local Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly has complained. “It has become the number-one issue among the townspeople and they are sick of the birds. It has reached crisis point.”
So what exactly are the authorities planning?
Basically, to cut down on their breeding. Under the directive signed by Darragh O’Brien, “any individual” can remove a gull’s nest or eggs if they “represent a threat to health or safety, or are likely to cause serious damage to crops or livestock or flora and fauna”.
In other words, people who find such nests on their private property are allowed to dispose of them however they like. This permit will apply until April 30 next year. Whether a State agency or a private contractor will be hired to carry out a mass cull has not yet been confirmed.
But don’t gulls have any legal comeback?
This is where the situation could get murky. Herring gulls are on an EU list of protected species that makes it illegal to harm them or their eggs.
Contrary to what you might think, their overall population has actually declined by roughly 90pc over the last 30 years and they’re vulnerable to diseases such as the avian flu which is currently menacing Ireland’s coastline.
Any EU country can get a derogation from its Birds Directive under certain circumstances and Ireland has done this several times. However, Birdwatch Ireland’s head of advocacy Oonagh Duggan argues that our Government has not complied with the strict tests required.
“It sends out a terrible message during a biodiversity emergency,” she told The Irish Times, “when the State itself [says] viable bird eggs are disposable.”
How do bird lovers suggest that we all live in harmony instead?
By adopting a “carrot and stick” approach. The carrot would be to make our islands more attractive to gulls again, putting up nesting boxes which predators such as rats or mink can’t attack.
The stick would involve cutting off gulls’ food supply in urban areas, hiding the refuse sacks that can be easily torn open by eager beaks and claws.
Dublin City Council is already taking a lead on this issue. It recently launched a pilot scheme in the city centre with super-strong, reusable rubbish bags which businesses and residents can put their regular bags into.
Collection crews will then empty the traditional sack into their trucks and return the tougher one to customers. The results of this experiment are keenly awaited.
Finally, are Dubliners destined to get in a flap about this every year whether we cull the gulls or not?
There are some practical steps anyone can take. Staring a gull in the eye will usually make it back off, while barriers over window ledges and using fake decoy birds can help it decide to give your place a miss.
The most imaginative solution comes from food despatch company Deliveroo. It has teamed up with ornithologist Dr Madeleine Goumas and a team of sound engineers to create a song which mimics the noise gulls make when there’s danger around. Play it on your phone and the title’s meaning becomes clear: Bye Gull Bye.
“Does the gulls’ behaviour need to change or do we?” is the question posed by artist Shanna May Breen in a new outdoor show called GULL which will run at the Dublin Fringe Festival next week. The answer seems to be a bit of both.
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